Encouraging and ensuring digital literacy means stronger, healthier, and more prosperous societies and economies
This is an exclusive interview conducted by the Editor Team of CIO News with Shaukat Ali Khan, Global Chief Information Officer at Aga Khan University
About Shaukat Ali Khan:
Shaukat Ali Khan is the Global Chief Information Officer at the Aga Khan University and Hospitals (AKU) and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), the first internationally chartered university founded in Pakistan. In his role as Global CIO, Shaukat is responsible for 20,000 users and all ICT systems and services across AKU’s global portfolio of hospitals, medical centers, and university locations in Asia, Africa, and the United Kingdom.
Shaukat joined AKU from the University of Central Asia (UCA), where he also held the position of CIO. As a member of UCA’s executive management team, he led the university’s IT functions, which were spread across 15 sites in four countries. During this time, he organised the inaugural “Digital Transformation in Central Asia Conference” in 2019, where the President of the Kyrgyz Republic delivered a keynote speech on the digital strategy of the country—this marked the inception of the region’s digitization initiatives.
Prior to his engagement in the higher education sector, Shaukat was Head of IT Production Infrastructure at Novo Nordisk’s corporate headquarters in Denmark and Global Senior IT Infrastructure Architect for a network infrastructure that now serves more than 48,000 employees in over 80 countries worldwide. Novo Nordisk is one of Scandinavia’s largest companies, with a market capitalization of over USD 200 billion.
Over the years, Shaukat has been highly recognised for his work. He has received more than 40 national and international awards, including the DXInspire Award in 2022 (the DXInspire Award represents the highest accolade that a CIO can receive) and the World CIO 200 Legend Award in 2022 and 2021 by the Global CIO Forum. In addition, Innovator of the year award at Novo Nordisk. He also published a book entitled “Technological and social issues in the development and deployment of facial recognition biometric systems.” Shaukat has the honour of being the nominee of Pakistan for the United Nations’ highest technology position, Chief Information Technology Officer-Assistant Secretary General.
Additionally, Shaukat has conducted online public lectures with over 50 global technology leaders, including “Vint Cerf,” who is considered the “father of the internet,” and Toomas Ilves, who is the former President of Estonia. The media often requests his presence to discuss global and national technology trends.
Shaukat completed his Master of Science in Computer Science (MSc-CS) with an emphasis on IT management and strategic change from the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. He is also a Harvard Business School-certified dynamic manager and leader, equipped with the tools and best practises to lead strategic change and innovation.
What is digital literacy, and why does it matter?
Digital literacy is the ability to understand and use digital tools and technologies. This can be as basic as writing a report or article on Microsoft Word, but today we often take it to mean the ability to use and manipulate software and hardware to suit our needs. Essentially, this could be application development, data mining, creating machine learning models, or advancing artificial intelligence (AI) models. Anything that interacts with the “digital world” requires digital literacy, but the rapid pace of technological development means that there is an ever-growing demand for additional digital literacy.
For too many people, the digital world remains like a foreign language, strange until you have learned and studied it and can read, understand, and use it fluently through experience. It is significant because much of the productivity gains and advances of the twenty-first century have resulted from advances in the digital domain. Encouraging and ensuring digital literacy means stronger, healthier, and more prosperous societies and economies.
As an IT leader, what are your views on digitally upskilling the youth in the post-COVID era?
The youth are our hope for the future of the planet, and I would argue that today, not being digitally literate or skilled is almost like not being able to speak a basic language in which to express yourself. There is no doubt that the future is increasingly digital, and any of our youth who lack these skills may find themselves at a disadvantage in the future economy, not to mention as a society as a whole.
We used to say the same about English: if you cannot read and write in English, you lose access to the language of information, and your ideas cannot reach as wide an audience. In a globally connected world, digital is a single language that has currency everywhere. It breaks down multiple barriers with work that can be done across borders and cultures. So, those skills are absolutely necessary for the future of our youth and for the future of our economies and societies. And there is a tremendous need—most of the world is experiencing an IT talent shortage at a time when the number of digital projects is expanding rapidly.
How can the youth be digitally empowered? What kind of exposure and engagement opportunities in the educational curriculum can educational institutes implement to raise the interest of youths in upgrading their digital skills?
I think that this should not be a choice but a basic, universal educational right. Today, we don’t ask our children and youth, “Do you want to take English class?” or “Do you want to take math class?” We know that these are fundamental to their well-being and requisite skills for success in the global economy. Digital skills are the same. They should be taught from a young age, and indeed, in many advanced societies, this is the case. That education continues through middle and high school, and digital skills are becoming embedded components in tertiary education because there is no field that is untouched by the digital revolution today.
While basic digital literacy must be ensured, educational institutions must also provide opportunities for youth to develop skills in fields of rapidly accelerating knowledge, such as robotics, AI, automation, machine learning, and, I believe, in a few years, quantum computing. Educational institutions need to be able to give their students the option and opportunity to keep learning and delving into areas of passion.
Should it become a must for schools, colleges, and other educational institutes to conduct workshops or crash-course programmes to drive home the importance of technology for businesses?
I think I answered this in the previous question, but yes—absolutely! Workshops, programs, and short courses are all necessary not just to drive the importance of technology for business but to build relevant skills for staff in all businesses. In fact, I think there is a major opportunity for training and educational institutions to generate revenue by working with corporations and other businesses on delivering digital skills training for their staff.
As an IT leader, what advice would you give to the youth considering a career in the technology industry? What should they know about the industry before starting their career? What challenges they could face in and how do they overcome the challenges?
Digital skills are a basic necessity to simply function in today’s world. If one has passion and a willingness to learn, then I would absolutely recommend taking computer science courses or enrolling in a computer science degree and specialising in a branch of knowledge that is of interest. I would advise, though, that, like any field today, this will require a commitment to lifelong learning and continuous professional development. Youth need to know that the pace of change is very quick, with knowledge becoming obsolete in just five years—there will be a need for continuous skills development. However, the intellectual reward is there, the job opportunities are many and continually increasing, and I think there is a tremendous sense of fulfilment in working in a field where your work will have an impact on many, many users, from your workplace to potentially the whole world. Google, Amazon, and Facebook (Meta) all revolutionised the way we interact and engage with things in our lives. All of these were born out of digital skills coupled with a specific interest.
Any other points you would like to highlight?
I would always advise youth to follow their passion and do what interests them—but I would add the caveat: build digital skills no matter what. It is difficult today to succeed in any pursuit, whatever your passion may be, if you do not have the requisite digital skills or digital literacy. The competitive edge for most companies lies in their digital capabilities, and I would argue the same for people: in a world that has a dearth of adequately skilled digital individuals, this will be your competitive edge.
Also read: Modern technologies can be intimidating
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