How do we spread social technology skills?

So part of my report for Carnegie has to include recommendations for organisations, policymakers, government and anyone else who we think could do things a little differently. Kevin and I had a bit of a brainstorm and came up with a list, which is going to need whittling down. However, one of the points I have become increasingly unhappy with: “Provide basic digital literacy training for staff that need it.”

The more I look at the phrase ‘digital literacy’, and the baggage that comes with it, the less happy I am using it in a recommendation. There is no doubt in my mind that we do need to spread the skills that will allow people to engage online more often and more effectively, but how do we best do that? Asking government to do it just fills me with the screaming heebie jeebies. Asking academia to do it, or the usual set of skills agencies to get involved also fills me with fear. Why? Because with social media, there is a lot to be lost in translation and the people at the centre of pass on social media skills should be the people who actually have them, not people who’ve watched others use the tools and think that they thus know how they work.

Social media is experiential, and what we need, I think, are ways to draw more people into having those experiences and participating in existing social media communities.

I’d be very, very keen to hear other people’s thoughts and opinions on this. What should we do to help people understand and make best use of social tools? Indeed, should we do anything?

Here is my list of recommendations. Feel free to comment on those too. I’m not entirely sure that they are categories correctly yet, nor that I’ve not missed something really important, (or included unimportant things) so feel free to dig in and give me robust feedback.

For organisations

* Provide basic digital literacy training for staff that need it. There are many other sectors, e.g. education, where increasing digital literacy is a stated goal, so there is expertise to be drawn on.
* Provide general social media training for as many staff as possible. Social media talent can spring from anywhere and successful organisations encourage all staff members to be involved.
* Find staff who have the right aptitudes, such as curiosity, an ability to communicate clearly, and a desire to connect with people, and train them further to become the organisation’s social media evangelists. These people may come from anywhere within the organisation and associations should not simply look to the marcomm function.
* Draw talent from supporters/volunteers, many of whom may have the skills that are required.
* Ensure budget is set aside to support social media projects, training and resources.
* Task a person or team within the organisation to learn about and experiment with social technologies.
* Focus on a small number of tools, and choose ones that can be most easily fitted into existing work schedules. Understand the limitations of your resources and don’t try to do too much.
* Work with external consultants and mentors who can advise on strategy and implementation. Whilst the tools might be easy to use, using them well can be harder.
* Use social tools internally for collaboration and communications. Blogs, wikis and social bookmarking tools are particularly useful in an internal context.
* Share success stories, lessons, problems and knowledge both internally across the organisation but also externally with other organisations. Sharing knowledge with others will encourage reciprocation, create goodwill and help everyone involved.
* Engage with social media communities outside of the third sector, for example, attend events focused on social media. There are many small, free, informal events, so it’s not just about expensive conferences.
* Let individuals’ personalities come through. Social media is not a form of corporate communication, but a one-to-one conversation so it’s essential to let people be themselves.
* Don’t just focus on younger members of staff. Having a talent for social media is all about one’s mindset, not age or technological history. Older members of staff can take to social tools like ducks to water just as much as their younger counterparts.
* Ensure there is space for dissent, and that it is evaluated honestly and fairly, and fed back into the process.

For policy makers/government

* Help should be given to smaller organisations — both financial and advice in the form of free mentoring, workshops, information packs etc. — to ensure that they develop the web skills required to see them through the next 15 years.
* Wider help should be given to civil society associations to ensure that web standards, particularly for accessibility, are understood and met.
* A project to develop applications and tools specifically for the third sector should be considered, as many associations will not have the capability to develop applications themselves.
* The technical capacity of civil society associations should be enhanced by schemes that bring together developers and organisations to work on open source projects which could then be used and adapted by any organisation.
* There should also be an evangelist-mentor programme that reaches out to organisations and helps them to understand what social media could do for them.
* Ongoing research focused on the use of technology and social media by the British population, similar to the Pew Internet Institute in the United States.

For funding organisations

* Grant giving organisations should consider how the projects they fund could be improved by the use of the web, and should encourage organisations to include social technology in their project plans. They should also be willing to specify additional budget to ensure that social media is worked into the fabric of the project, not bolted on as an afterthought.
* There should be more research into the use of social media and the web by civil society association to create a portfolio of case studies and best practices. Examine ROI, metrics, resourcing needs (social media can be resource-intensive but just how intensive is poorly understood).
* Invest in projects that will help build technical capabilities within civil society; not necessarily so that they can execute themselves, but so that they can understand the issues and make informed decisions about social technology based on evidence rather than assumption.
* Insist on web standards being adopted and met.
* Fund experiments and be supportive of risk-taking.
* Examine the needs of civil society and fund work on additions to existing open source software projects that could meet those needs. Specialist tools are unlikely to be required and OSS should be supported whenever possible.

12 thoughts on “How do we spread social technology skills?

  1. I agree with your posting about spreading digital skills. I read a tweet earlier about aspiration being at the heart of change. I think people need to be able to identify with how social media can assist them in their aspiration. the training, skills development, policies etc will come after that.

  2. Hi Suw

    Bunch of great ideas there!
    Hope to implement some of your suggestions in EU eSkills Week 2010 – planned to be in March! Want to join as a stakeholder? Mail/tweet me if you want more info (@alexajoyce)


  3. Re digital literacy — the most important thing is what you mean by the term. Important to avoid the learning of skills only, ie without the underlying understanding; a risk is that people are limited to specific tools and not well-prepared for whatever comes next, exploring, experimenting etc.
    Vital also (I think) to focus on learning/learners rather than “delivering training” — which includes understanding (and acting on) key factors that underlie effective learning, eg motivation, learning by doing, prompt and focused feedback, evaluation/assessment, teaching others…
    You might well know about the recent ‘HE in a Web 2.0 World’ report (also Edgeless University study) which might be useful, although both focused on HE.
    Finally, perhaps your post could explain what “my report for Carnegie” is?
    Hope this helps.

  4. Thanks, Suw — interesting stuff; my background includes work in/with non-profits/third sector and I know there’s so much going on here.

  5. Jonathan, there really is a lot going on, which is great! I just wish I had time to do a better review of it all.

  6. Have you seen this from McKinsey published back in Feb Its fairly basic but I think their points are spot on – especially the “keep it in the workflow” point. You have to register to get the full text unfortunately – but its worth the hassle.

    By the way – was fellow Tuttle consultant at BC last week but didn’t get a chance to say hello. So “Hello”

  7. Damn I wish I had some useful stuff to add here but it just won’t come to me right now. However I do agree social media is somewhere you live, not just something you learn. I think one of the whole principles of social media is that it’s something anyone and all of us can explore collaboratively together, it isn’t something that someone tells us we have to do and so we begrudgingly go along to a training day and the HR team ticks it off on a skills box. So to try and spread it in a way that isn’t true to it’s nature starts to be a bit of a ‘bashing square pegs into round holes’ excercise. Am going to keep thinking about it for you and see if I can come up with something.

    Oh I know of one thing that would make a huge difference – not within the 3rd sector but the ripple effects out to the 3rd sector would be huge.

    Schools and local authorities need to be able to access and use social media. The firewall blocks need to go. Otherwise they’re in real danger of being left behind and having a very expensive catch up job to do. But re 3rd sector knock-on – such a major proportion of 3rd sector organisations work with schools and local authorities. Schools and local authorities need them desperately because of the services and expertise they offer. I can’t quite think how this all loops together but I know it does. And I think it’s somehow connected to this line of thinking in that the 3rd sector are some of the best organisations and working with and exploring collaboratively, rather than working top down and didactically / paternally etc.

    By enabling 3rd sector orgs to continue to improve and really excel in their collaborative co-constructed approach which partner areas like schools respect them for, both sides of the party need to be able to speak this same new language.

    Am not really sure how much help that is but hopefully it gives you something to think about and maybe you’ll put your finger on the cohesion I’m struggling with just now!

  8. First, let me say I completely agree with you in your earlier piece mentioning the myths of digital natives – millennials don’t necessarily take to this stuff luck a duck to water, and the over 60s can “get it” just as quickly as a teenager – policy makers and organisations need to factor that in to their planning.

    I know what you mean about the Digital Literacy term, but it’s the best we’ve got. I can understand your reservations about government and academia, but on the latter you only need to look to places like DMU’s Institute of Creative Technologies, along with the work Sue Thomas is doing on Transliteracy to see how the right attitude can get the academics doing great, practical stuff with local business and the third sector. I also think Sally is right to raise schools and local authorities. Just like the general business landscape there are great examples of use of social media tools in both, but plenty of ignorance or a vacuum that needs filling.

    Your list of recommendations looks good, but as you say, this stuff is expereriential. The digital natives and the enterprise 2.0 evangelists lived and breath the stuff in their personal life before they applied it in their organization. My first recommendation to a manager considering deploying social media is to get some first hand experience of the consumer tools as part of their learning process. We would get quicker adoption if there were many more practical uses of social media that the general population rubbed up against day to day. Beyond the consumer stuff, local authorities at all levels should be socializing the systems they use to interact with the public. The same should be happening across the school system, for parent/teacher communication as well, not just the learning process.

    As you know, one of the keys to adoption is answering the question “what’s in it for me”, so that needs to be part of the approach for skills transfer.

  9. I notice David has mentioned our work on transliteracy at DMU. NB the website is looking a bit dowdy atm and about to be reworked, but do check out, especially the First Monday article Transliteracy: Crossing Divides and also my longish video talk. Transliteracy is a wide open theory but at its core is an insistence that there is nothing new in digital, it’s just new ways of doing old things e.g. chatrooms = skype = campfire conversations, etc etc.

    You say: “Asking academia to do it, or the usual set of skills agencies to get involved also fills me with fear. Why? Because with social media, there is a lot to be lost in translation and the people at the centre of pass on social media skills should be the people who actually have them, not people who’ve watched others use the tools and think that they thus know how they work. ”

    I totally agree. This may sound a bit ageing hippy, but you have to live these technologies to understand them. Anything else is like assuming that observant car passengers will at some point have learned enough to be competent drivers. One attains a high level of transliteracy from being a *conscious user* of many literacies, not a watcher.

    We’re also working on the connections between amplification and transliteracy. Our new project Amplified Leicester aims to use diversity as a driver for amplification and innovation, and our NLab work, very much a university project with HEIF funding, also addresses issues of business, social media, transliteracy and amplification. (You gave a talk for us at NLab a few years ago)

    I’m sorry if this post reads like an ad for everything we’re doing, but sometimes it’s important to flag it up.

    NB I have tried, and to date failed, to interest Ofcom in transliteracy. I think they are stuck on the notion of digital literacy, but in my view that is missing a trick. The issue is not about making the digital different, but about showing how it is just another aspect of what humans already do when they communicate, innovate and interact.

  10. There are a number of issues here that make the whole area very complex. But essentially I believe that the kind of thing you are talking about is what you will find being taught on Media Studies and Communications degree courses.

    The problem with the term digital literacy is that it specifies the technology, whereas the knowledge that we wish to teach and analyze extend beyond this to use. Also, to call something digital literacy opens up the whole problem that digital machines, as Universal Turing machines, can instantiate a massive number of different machines and is therefore potentially extremely broad. Of course, more and more of our media are digital in some way today so this is another reason to shy away from digital literacy as a term otherwise it could also cover TV, Radio and programming!

    Given this potential breadth in the term digital literacy why not just narrow your concerns to that which you describe which is Social Media? However, as Jonathan comments, it is desirable to avoid just the teaching of skills. Contextualization and critique should be part of any teaching of these media. This is exactly what we do teaching Media Studies, and we do so by getting the students to use the tools whilst thinking about their use, context and history.

    I’m not sure I agree with Sue that “there is nothing new in digital”. Although new media remediate previous ways of communicating that does not mean that Skype = Campfire Conversations. The medium does change the nature of communication, so even of it is not the message (as Mcluhan argued) it does change the nature of the message. This is why the study of social media is needed.

    In short I believe what you are proposing falls under the broad heading of media/communication studies. Media Studies teaches us a lot about how different mediums have different affordances and dangers and our current practice should be informed by and develop this. What you seem to be describing is a subset of Media Studies, focused on social media, but which needs to be informed by the broader discipline.

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