Exploring the barriers to digital solutions in employment related services by Ian Hilder, Saffron Interactive. 

I’m of an age that grew up with vinyl records as the only means of purchasing and playing music on-demand. Recently I had a short vacation in an ‘oldy-worldy’ cottage that boasted an old record player and a selection of vinyl – including the soundtrack to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! In a fit of nostalgia, I seized the opportunity to relive the memories of my childhood… But after forty minutes of crackles, static and jumping music; forty minutes of not being able to select the track I actually wanted and having to get up every five minutes to change the record, I had to conclude ‘yeah, I know why we went digital’.

Digital innovation is a fact of life. It’s the age we live in and has encroached into nearly every aspect of our day-to-day. In many cases, when it delivers tangible benefits, we embrace and don’t even think about it. But maybe as little as 10-15 years ago not many of us could envision that future and, if someone had described it to us, we’d have been sceptical.

It feels like that is where we are within employment related services: standing at the precipice of the question ‘is digital delivery the future of employability?’. We are wary and maybe a little guarded. But I want to explore where some of that resistance comes from and possibly dispel a couple of myths. So, let’s start by better defining what sort of ‘digital’ we mean.

There is digital and there is digital

Our work at Saffron sees us working closely with the advisors; those people ‘at the coalface’ who support the individual end clients. For them, digitisation has mostly meant increasingly demanding back-office case management systems. It may be valuable data that is being collected, but the day-to-day reality is increased admin with no tools focused on helping the supported individual. So, I can understand that resistance. But that’s not the digital I am talking about here.

The step-change – and the digitisation to which I am referring – is end-user facing tools that enable the individual to make progress by themselves. Tools such as skills assessments, CV-builders, job-searches etc. maybe supported with guides or digital training courses. There are an increasing number of such tools available and can undoubtedly help some individuals, particularly supporting those who are most motivated and competent to start.

But these instruments remain largely isolated. For many, they can be daunting and hard to navigate. They also do little to address confidence and motivation, as that sort of support has remained the domain of the live advisor. But the advent of artificially intelligent (AI) technologies means that even that, in part at least, can be digitised. It is possible to achieve an empathetic online environment wherein the end-user is supported and guided through the process, in a manner similar to that provided by a live advisor. This technology already exists and is embedded within Saffron’s Create Your Own Future platform. As one client stated, ‘what you are really doing is digitising our best advisor’ and that is a good way of putting it.

But the mere thought of AI can make people uneasy when they first encounter it, which is when the objections start to form…

Digital exclusion

Digital exclusion is almost always the first concern cited when contemplating the implementation of digital solutions. Lloyds Bank’s Essential Digital Skills survey shows that 20% of UK residents lacked ‘foundation level’ skills either wholly or partially in 2021 – which means they are unable to function online. Though it is worth noting that only 6% were completely excluded, i.e. they have no online skills.

But if we turn the statistic around, it also means that 80% do have the basic skills required to function online. And if we break that down by age, 97% of 18-24 years olds have the requisite skills. That remains at 90% or above for all ages up to 54, before falling back to the national average for 55–64-year-olds.

Having the functional skills is one thing, but do people have the necessary access? Here again there are reasons to be cheerful. In January 2022, 98% of the UK population had access to the internet. This is backed up by Ofcom’s 2021 report, Online Nation, which cites that over 90% of all 18- to 54-year-olds were frequent users of the internet.

Digital exclusion is a serious issue which needs to be addressed and I would not want to dismiss it for a second. But that does not mean we ignore the opportunity to engage with the 90%+ of people in our target group. If we can deliver an effective online solution for the 90%, not only are we providing them with support and assistance, but we are also freeing time and resources which can be better targeted towards those who need it the most, including those we term ‘the digitally excluded’.

Would people use online digital solutions?

So, a vast majority of the population are already online, but would they use an online employability platform? Conversely, is there any reason to think they wouldn’t? Indeed, anecdotally we know from our work that many people prefer online with its 24/7 availability, less pressure and ‘non-judgmental’ environment which some experience when engaging face-to-face. But we can definitely learn lessons from current behaviours in order to achieve the best online experience for the most people.

In 2021, UK residents spent an average of 3 hours, 37 minutes online per day. The sites most frequently accessed were Google and Facebook by some distance, followed by the likes of Netflix, Spotify, Snapchat and reference sites, such as the BBC. And the devices used to access the internet were predominantly smartphones (85%) and computers (74%). That differential is even more marked amongst younger cohorts with smartphone usage rising to 91% in 25-34 year olds.

Google is about providing guidance, enabling people to get to the information they seek by the quickest possible route. Facebook – and many of the other sites – offer an entire ecosystem, invariably centred around well-designed, bright intuitive interfaces. And ‘behind the scenes’ they remember the users likes, dislikes and activities so they can provide personalised suggestions and guidance. And finally, the device split means that any solution has to be designed for ‘mobile-first’ usage. These are the lessons we need to carry over into the best digital employability solutions in order to maximise impact and results for as many individuals as we can.

A human replacement?

But can an online platform, even with an ‘intelligent’ advisor, do everything that a live advisor does? That is the third and very valid concern often raised. I can give you a short answer: no, it can’t.

However, a lot of what an advisor does is form-filling with the individual, gathering data and providing information, and then chasing up on activities and progress. A digital solution can do that.

Anecdotally, advisors with whom we have worked estimate that 70% of their time is spent on such activities and only 30% actually ‘advising’. A well-designed, end-user platform shifts some or all of that effort to the individual, relieving the advisor of that burden. At the same time, the system provides reports and alerts as to how well that individual is doing, where they might be getting stuck, issues that might be uncovered etc. That way, the advisor, with the extra time they now have, can provide informed and targeted support where it is needed most.

However, what is unsaid in the original statement is that AI cannot do everything that a good live advisor does. It cannot replace the subtlety, nuance and intuition that a good advisor brings to the relationship with the supported individual. That is true, though it can gather information and insight that helps the good advisor to provide that high value support.

But the opposite it also true, it does not do what a bad advisor might do either. A digital solution does not get tired, have a bad day or simply provide bad or wrong advice. It provides the same level of service with the same level of enthusiasm at any time of day and night. An effective end-user online environment delivers consistency. It sets a baseline standard and supports the advisor as much as it does the supported individual. It makes every advisor a good advisor.

The digital future present

Digital is inevitable. It is here already, and we have happily accepted it into many aspects of our life because of the benefits it delivers.

But we are only just beginning to explore its usage within employment related services. Given that, there is a natural wariness, and it is right that we question its use and application. But it has significant potential benefits. It can free resource so that we can better support the digitally excluded and other disadvantaged groups. It can provide an empathetic environment for the end-user where they are supported to explore and develop themselves as far as they are capable. And far from eliminating the human touch, it can raise the standard and enable advisors to spend more time on higher-value, productive work with the individual.

Ian Hilder

Saffron Interactive


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