In 2014, let’s get digital skills out of the classroom

One early morning the other week, I was in the office sorting out evaluation forms from six of the digital skills courses our team had delivered over the last few days. Responses to ‘How would you rate X as a facilitator?’, ‘Did the course meet its objectives?’, ‘What three things will you take away from the course?’ and many others swam before me. The ratings were generally excellent. Most people found the sessions ‘interesting’, ‘eye-opening’, and even ‘inspiring’. Virtually everyone enjoyed the practical exercises (where we get the group to use free social media listening tools, or translate conventional press releases into tweet and Facebook post format, using our suite of Chromebooks).

But there’s a killer question: How strongly do you agree/disagree that ‘I will be more effective at work as a result of this event’? The polite delegates agree mildly. The honest ones disagree mildly. We’ve had a pleasant few hours together discussing interesting examples and challenges and going through the popular tools, but ultimately, we’re sending the group back to their desks interested, rather than transformed. When they sit down again, they’ll face the tyranny of corporate IT policies, an overflowing inbox, and professional stigma around using social media in work time, with just an annotated handout to see them through.

In 2014, let’s find a better way to help people get the digital skills they need.

Getting started using digital tools and techniques takes more than interest and knowledge, and I think that’s because like the development of any new skill, there’s a more complex process involved:

For starters, you need opportunity: the ability to apply new skills to your day job. A barrier we come up against time and again is the reality that a large chunk of the public sector in 2013 isn’t trusted or equipped to access common digital tools. Beyond the evergreen problem of having the right kit and being able to access the right websites, changing how people work takes time and creativity, to find shortcuts, try a new approach for a specific project, and identify where digital can add value, rather than becoming just another thing to do.

There’s also the critical factor of encouragement: quite understandably, people at work do what their managers value, by and large. If your boss pays lip-service to the importance of digital (say, sending you on a half day course but not helping you lobby IT to get access to the tools you need), then you’ll fall back into traditional ways of working pretty quickly. Engaging online as a public servant is rewarding but also still quite risky, potentially: if you fear that HR or the Press Office or your line manager won’t be there for you if things go wrong, your appetite for innovation will wane.

Marilyn Booth at BIS – an early pioneer – has been blogging about the fear they’ve been helping people to overcome:

Rather than just talking at people for an hour and a half, we got them involved, asking what their barriers to getting online were, but equally asking what we as a digital team could do to help with those issues. We didn’t find anything that necessarily surprised us, but as well as relatively normal quibbles about lack of knowledge, slow IT, perceptions that “this isn’t allowed”, we were able to identify a basket of concerns that we now label the fear. Most are cultural, with some very peculiar to being a civil servant.

In too many places, the Communications department is becoming a gatekeeper for the organisation’s work online, rather than a mentor or guardian. If, at the dawn of 2014, the Press Office issues all the tweets from your organisation, you have a problem. Euan’s got it right.

Crucially – and maybe because of the hurdles of opportunity and encouragement – you need the right attitude to put digital skills into operation. Not everyone will JFDI off their own bat. Cultivating the spirit of persistence, experimentation, thick-skinned self-awareness and assertiveness that you need to engage online with digital tools takes time and patience. As blogging Ambassador Tom Fletcher puts it:

Where do we add most value? And what will we need to be equipped with in the 21c? As of now, a smartphone. But also the skills that have always been essential to the role: savvy, an open mind, and thick skin. I think, like the best traditional diplomacy, iDiplomacy comes down to authenticity, engagement and purpose.

Even the best half day course can’t equip you with the opportunity, encouragement and attitude you need to do things differently with digital. To do that will take something altogether more:

  • personalised: appropriate to your job, and the relationship you have with your boss, and the controversies or people you have to deal with
  • sustained: designed to help you make small changes, and keep making them, over weeks, and then months
  • flexible: with lots of little nuggets, examples, tips, experiences and inspiration, designed to help overcome the big strategic problems and capitalise on the tactical opportunities when they come along

Face-to-face conversation is vital to seeding ideas, overcoming barriers and building confidence, but people learn in different ways. Sometimes, the Civil Service Reform Plan commitment to civil servants of five days’ learning a year is translated into five days in a classroom. Like Puffles, I’m not sure courses do it for me, but visits to see how other people do things, or discussions over coffee, or online groups do. I learn a lot though Googling and experimentation, but other people like to read books. I mean no offence to the 450 or so people we’ve trained since the summer when I say it’s horses for courses…

I’m inspired by Tim’s experiment at BIS, Stephen’s focus on embedding digital into business as usual at DH, and cheering GDS aiming to make use of low-cost digital tools more mainstream.

So my resolution for 2014 is to prod myself a bit harder to try and work out a better way of helping people develop digital skills that transform their working lives.

With our colleagues at Claremont, we’re working up a little idea we’re calling the Digital Gym: a 3 month programme of practical digital learning guided by a personal trainer. The idea is that they’ll talk to you to understand you, your role and your organisation, and recommend a package of approaches to fit – maybe an event or some coaching, a video tutorial, an online club with weekly assignments, or a classroom-based course. It will all be part of a learning plan with specific goals and deadlines, with material potentially delivered by lots of different individuals and organisations. Here’s a sneak preview of our alpha, which we’re hoping to trial with some interested organisations early in 2014:

Digital Gym

It’s a big challenge for us to see if we can make this work, both for the learners, their organisations, and for us as small businesses. I’ll give an update here next month on how its going, but do drop me a line if you’d like to get involved.

Disclosure: Although my team and I make a living partly from delivering digital skills courses, I’d prefer to feel that our time and the public sector investment delivered the maximum impact. So if classroom training fades as source of revenue for us but digital skills amongst the audience grow, I’d say that’s a good result – regardless of what that does to our revenues.

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