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Skills and the Digital Sector – Some Thoughts on a Macro Approach

Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership, on whose board I sit, has recently been given an extended remit by the Government. Amongst other areas, we are now responsible for developing a ‘skills strategy’ for the wide corridor between the coastal strip around Brighton up ‘Route23’ to London.

As finding the right people with the right skills is usually what digital businesses tell me is their number one challenge, I think this provides an opportunity to rethink approaches to skills and knowledge development in our sector.

The approach which the public sector instinctively takes is to see the solution solely in the hands of colleges and universities – it’s their job, the thinking goes, to deliver an industry-ready cohort of appropriately skilled individuals. But that doesn’t necessarily work in our sector where the stuff you need to know is developing and changing all the time. By the time universities and colleges have identified a need, identified funding to meet that need, found staff to deliver and then students to take the courses, well, the world (or at least our part of it) has moved on. It means that these institutions are constantly playing catch up to the needs of the sector.

It feels like that model which says ‘you go and learn your skills in this teaching institution and then use them in this business environment’ (and then go back to the institution to ‘top-up’ your skills) doesn’t work.

Perhaps there are 3 elements which need to be taken into account to create a successful learning strategy for digital clusters:

1. Learning institutions.
More and more, their role might be about what Alvin Toffler (might have) called the new literacy – the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. This means understanding core principles and approaches and resisting artificial demarcations between different sets of knowledge. It’s about preparing individuals for roles in their working life that haven’t even been invented yet.

2. Businesses themselves.
No-one has more to gain from their employees learning things of value than the businesses themselves (apart from maybe the employees?) and they know (or need to know) what new knowledge the people in their companies need to master. The Government’s ‘Employer Ownership of Skills’ policy goes some way to acknowledging this but as Vince Cable admitted to us when we met with him recently, the policy is not working for small businesses. What these businesses lack is a common method of collectively evaluating, measuring and agreeing skill sets (something that the Drupal development community has successfully developed?)

3. The Community
As someone once said, Brighton’s competitive advantage is collaboration. Small companies and freelancers in a fast changing sector benefit by learning and sharing with each other. You can see this self-organisation happening almost any night of the week at places like The Skiff with events on a whole range of stuff where individuals share their knowledge with each other. It’s not just The Skiff or course (disclaimer – Wired Sussex resources the Skiff!); this is happening all over the city with greater or lesser degrees of formality. Our cluster has organic, well-developed informational and knowledge sharing networks which usually fail to be recognised by policy makers. Whether that matters at all is, of course, a moot point.

I think that, in a way, what we are trying to do at The FuseBox is combine those 3 elements - the institutional, the business and the informal / community – together into a coherent model.

About the author

Phil Jones

Hi, I'm the Director of Innovation and Projects at Wired Sussex, I deliver our portfolio of regional creative technology projects and support our innovation hub, the FuseBox.

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