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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Spot on, Steph

I find it very frustrating when I do one-off training sessions and people then don’t follow it up. If organisations really want their people to use social media they need to recognise that it is a longterm process which starts with adoption, moves through experimentation and results in fluency. And people need continued support through this process. In some cases it is possible to find internal champions to take it on, but, in others, it requires continuing external support. And, of course, this costs more. It is often relatively easy to find resources for one off sessions, not so easy to resource continuing support.

Amen. It’s hard influencing organisations from the outside, but then it’s a different kind of hard trying to do it from the inside. I reckon there’s something we can do, working with smart folks inside organisations, to help them scale up training of their people and support them in clearing the internal roadblocks that would hinder them using the skills.

Hi Steph

Fab post and excellent points. I guess it all comes back to that age old social marketing problem: if you want to facilitate a sustained change in behaviour, then you need to consider the whole basket of factors that influence the behavioural outcome, and make a proper analysis as to whether the one you’re responsible for (in this case, training) is in an of itself enough to help people make the shift. If people are just going back to their desks armed with great examples but without the required tools and time to put them into practice, then you could argue that training isn’t the right lever to be pulling.

That said (and with full disclosure that I’ve helped you run these courses!), what I have seen with some participants is that, through the face to face training environment, they’ve felt supported in taking their very first, rather tentative steps into the digital and social media world. It’s a seed planted and knowledge shared, and that in itself is a really important start.

Gym sounds interesting. I must admit, my usually heart sinks when I hear the term ‘online-learning’, but I’ve also seen Facebook facilitated groups, video and webinars work incredibly well as a way of training and coaching people over a number of weeks. It’s certainly worth a crack – look forward to seeing how it develops in 2014 🙂

Many thanks for writing this Steph, as well as for the link.

What I’m exploring in Cambridge is the interface between local public sector organisations and local communities. My strategy is based around publicly scrutinising the former (eg at public meetings). while helping train up the latter as a volunteer for @Net2Camb. The minutes at in the public questions’ session give an idea of some of the cultural challenges out there. (I submitted my questions in advance to allow councillors reasonable time to prepare their answers, but still got hostile responses from a couple, although this is not mentioned in the minutes).

One of the things I’ve also noticed is the significant differences in cultures and attitudes towards all things digital – something I feel isn’t appreciated in London circles. Perhaps one of the things that also frustrates me is how all things digital seems to have been hijacked by the marketing men. Too much of it seems to be about how to sell stuff rather than about feedback loops influencing organisational behaviour. At a small business level in my neck of the woods, social media all too often seems to be about marketing and selling, rather than conversations.

I’m interested in the ‘Digital Gym’ concept because it looks like the sort of thing I was pondering over in the blogpost you linked to. Is yours going to be a product or a framework? eg with the latter, is it something that say a local area could adopt and invite different people and orgs to provide little chunks of face-to-face training. So for example you could have volunteers such as the @Net2Camb set up doing the very basics and the surgeries, then with the paid face-to-face training for beyond the basics, and with digital materials and community forums to bridge the gap between anything face-to-face?