Building digital skills in the workplace

I helped facilitate a session on digital skills at the 2015 Digital Leaders conference, today. This network is worth getting involved with, or revisiting if you haven’t attended any of their events lately.

There was a lot of discussion about digital skills in the public and private sector. Quite rightly, much of this focussed on preparing tomorrow’s workforce.

My concern is with today’s workforce – particularly the managers and leaders who will still be in post in five or even ten years’ time, and will need to understand and inspire their new colleagues.

I recounted the story of a senior civil servant who, during an experimental digital coaching session, told me of his experience of learning new technologies in the workplace:

First, I was trained in how to make use of the typing pool. Then came personal computers at everyone’s desks. Now you’re here showing me how to use the internet to understand what people are saying about our policies.

These are big steps. These people (however senior) need to be ready and able to inspire their next cohort of recruits.

They must be able to think and ‘do’ digital in practice – not just talk about strategies and throw around vague words like ‘impact’ and ‘vision’.

I suggest there are four traits we need to keep an eye out for, in the workplace:

  1. Get staff confident. Recognise that fear often hides behind talk of security or lack of time. Level the playing field, and explain that no-one is the definitive expert. We’re all learning.
  2. Encourage staff to draw direct links between the things they do online at home, and how this might be relevant to work. Think: online services, sharing and building of information, news consumption.
  3. Properly incentivise and reward learning in the workplace. Skills won’t be developed if people aren’t confident, and the only thing that’s rewarded is long hours and a perception of ‘busy’.
  4. Don’t make digital a silo. That’s the whole reason that most organisations are in a pickle today. Not only does this prevent digital skills establishing a baseline, but it also gives those lacking confidence an excuse not to bother.  The guys in jeans downstairs will take care of it.
    Some of my colleagues at the conference made compelling cases for retraining the staff you have – the DWP Academy is a good example.


Using Breezie

I recently bought a tablet for my 85 year old Grandmother, and at the same time I bought a licence for Breezie. This is a piece of software endorsed by Age UK that helps simplify the interface on a Samsung Galaxy tablet.

When I was researching this for my Grandmother, I couldn’t find much in the way of independent user experience, particularly if you are buying and installing on behalf of someone, so I thought I would blog about my experiences here, in the hope this helps others make a decision.

The first thing to say, is that the tablet has been a huge success. I seriously thought there was a 50/50 chance I’d be punting it back on eBay within weeks. But Granny was emailing within an hour (having never used a computer in her life), and surfing within two.

It’s worth knowing that she is:

– 85
– partially sighted
– not confident with technology, but willing to give something a try
– has a simple SMS/call phone
– navigates a smart TV with Sky channels and recording (which, given how unfriendly these interfaces can be, has no doubt helped)
– had never used a desktop or any other computer before

IMG_2060Breezie only works with a Samsung Galaxy tab, which is frustrating. Originally, I was tempted to buy a more expensive iPad and set up a nice decluttered home screen.

I bought the Samsung and attempted to do this anyway, which appeared impossible. It came fresh out of the box with huge amounts of rubbish installed and hundreds of annoying, poorly worded notifications pinging and flashing away. If I had to use a Samsung Galaxy tab, I’d want Breezie too.

The question remains, would Granny do just as well with a stripped back iPad? Possibly.

No matter, I bought the Samsung, realised Breezie was going to be necessary, and ordered a licence. Fair to say that the whole experience gets better, eventually. I found their website tricky to understand and wasn’t entirely clear what I was getting for my £75. There don’t appear to be any useful screenshots on their website.

I received various oddly-worded emails confirming my order, and after accidentally binning one of these, which contained the link from which I could download the software, I was ready to set up.

The underlying problem with the instructions is that they assume your friend/relative is already online; that they have an email account, and, strangely, assume they have Facebook and Skype. None of which Granny had.

It isn’t possible to set up Breezie, then add in an email account, as far as I can tell. So, for example, if you had a friend or relative who simply wants to surf, Skype and read Kindle, and not email, this isn’t for you.

To begin with I had incorrectly set up my own Google account on the tablet (Google is the default for Breezie), so went back in using the account I created for my Granny. This is OK in hindsight, but the instructions talk about the user in the third person, while in fact you (the ‘sponsor’) have to pretend to be that person for the purposes of set up.

Once you are set up, things get a lot better, and I see the value of Breezie. The email interface is brilliant, plus the fact that I can log in remotely and add different buttons to the home screen as Granny’s confidence develops.

There is a greater range of Breezie-fied apps available than you might think, from their website. Neat buttons to help navigate photos, reading, Skype and shopping.

The micro copy and navigation around email is thoughtful and clear. The colours seem helpful in this case, and the whole thing is far from intimidating. I know my Granny quite well, obviously, so if she was feeling overwhelmed it would be obvious to me.

While she is getting on fine surfing the web, the browser is a bit disappointing with Breezie. It’s just the standard Chrome, interface, which means the tabs are too small.

The home screen only allows two buttons plus a third for ‘other apps’, whereas I’d quite like her to have, say, email, web and reading on the home screen, with a fourth button for other things, further down the line.

More recently, an annoying pop-up has appeared saying something about the account needing updating. This turned out to be yet another unnecessary prompt to enter Facebook account details.

Worth £75? Possibly, but if finances allow, I’d recommend testing an iPad first.

I get the impression my Grandmother might be a bit of an edge case for Breezie. Their marketing appears to target 60-somethings who already use the web, but want to simplify their existing interface. But there’s no denying I am deeply impressed that Granny is on email, and exploring the web with confidence.

Kick starting a magazine for interns

Intern magazine

I’ve just finished reading issue 0 of Intern – a new magazine for the loose collective of people who are taking a vocational route to start their career.

As someone who spent a fair amount of my early career ‘interning’ I’m really interested in this, and how the traditional view of internships is blending with a world of work that is changing entirely. Issue 0 has an interesting feature on someone who’s using paid internships as a way of travelling Europe while building their portfolio, and others who are exchanging skills, rather than expecting conventional payment.

Cross-industry recognition of internships has long been missing, as a community to nurture and better understand, so Intern is very welcome. However, I hope the content has some practical focus in future issues. Stories of inspiration are always a good read, but there is also a crying need to inform and protect this community too.

It was an article in the Independent that got me interested in Intern originally, via Kickstarter. This is the first project I’ve contributed to, but it won’t be the last. The combination of Kickstarter’s slick user experience, a good, scalable, pitch from Intern (and, subsequently, lots more updates that make me feel like an investor, rather than a guy who gave a tenner) and the intersection of publishing and internships, was enough to land me.

If you’ve ever been an intern and are still interested in the sheer balls and excitement that internships demand, then it’s worth a read. And if you have always fancied yourself as an investor but don’t have the budget to match, give Kickstarter a go.

Results day

I secretly dread A-level results day, even after all these years.

I remember rushing home, envelopes in hand, keen to get it over. I knew I didn’t want to go to university, but I wanted this period of my life done with. And I still needed some sort of A-levels to get my foot in the door of journalism college, and to populate my CV – which was pretty sparse back then.

Nothing prepared me for the shock of my results. The subjects I hated and struggled with – Geography – had yielded a C, while the subjects I was passionate about and kind of wanted – English and Politics – were rubbish results. In fact, in one case, no result at all.

Now, I’d be happy if my children came home with A-level passes, regardless of grade. I would be sad if they felt these grades were the be all and end all as I did back then, for a short while.

I had been up front with my tutors for two years that I had no intention of going to university. They didn’t really know what to do with me, because it was assumed that A-levels equals university. Those big sessions on how to fill out your UCAS form, how to navigate clearing (heaven forbid!) all became free, and lonely, periods for me. In hindsight I should not have been there at all.

This isn’t another blog along the lines of ‘it all turns out OK’. But it is a hope that Sixth Form colleges and other institutions around the country will have improved since my day, and be genuinely more accepting of those that choose to take different paths.

Do I belong to a professional body? Yes.

I completed a survey last week that asked whether or not I belonged to a professional body. I think what the author of the survey meant to say was a ‘recognised’ body. Something like CIPR or IDM.

The survey seemed quite important in the context of some other things that are happening, so immediately I felt guilty for not being a paid up member of at least five branded communications bodies.

But on reflection, isn’t the web, and our networks within it, one brilliant, huge, professional community? For those of us working in communications, and particularly at the intersection between digital and communications, we can absorb more expert knowledge, support and contacts than any number of professional subscriptions.

I’m not saying there isn’t a role for professional bodies: they offer structure and a means to filter huge amounts of content. But I’m not going to feel bad for not having any particular affiliation, other than the strength of my own network and ability to tap information.

Work experience is about experience

“The UK Government is aiming to reverse the growing culture of unpaid internships” according to this report in The Guardian.

The article has spurred me on to share some personal feelings I have about work experience. Here’s a quick definition of what I am referring to as work experience or internship:

1. Unpaid
2. For an organisation of any type, public, private or charity
3. Where the primary motivation for work experience is to start a career in that chosen sector or discipline

An empty cup of tea
Work experience doesn't have to be all about making cups of tea. Image courtesy of

Much of the continued discussion around work experience is about whether or not participants should be paid, and the ongoing question of employer’s accountability. Are ‘workies’ seen as cheap labour to fulfil day-to-day administration tasks?

I have lots of personal experience of work experience, as employee and employer. Before I even began my journalism diploma, I had started to spend periods of work experience on local and regional newspapers. The advice I had from experienced journalists was that experience was everything, and qualifications a secondary concern. In fact, it was this advice that persuaded me not to go to university.

Whenever I read stories about new rules, regulations or guidance about work experience, my heart sinks. If you, as a college, school or university leaver, offer your time to a company, and they take you under their wing, it’s usually on the understanding of the three simple criteria above.

It is the responsibility of the student on work experience to ensure that they benefit from the experience and generate some contacts, without being taken advantage of and working for months, even years, for the same company, without renumeration.

I undertook lots of placements – some were successful and led to paid work, others were less useful and I quickly learnt how to nurture the former and wrap up the latter.

Of course, employers shouldn’t be taking advantage either. However, it’s a ruthless world out there and knowing when to draw the line is all part of the experience.

Here are some links to related issues and debates:

The difficulties of gaining work experience while claiming benefits

Media is a big user, and sometimes abuser of work experience. Here’s the debate at

This is a big subject and I’ve only scratched the surface with a personal opinion. But tell me your views: have you experienced work experience? Do you offer it as a company?

Throwing away my internet

Christmas always make me want to have a sort out. I hate all the clutter that gathers during this period.
Bah humbug.
This year’s target has been my bookshelves. I am a terrible hoarder when it comes to books, especially if they are a) old, or b) anything to do with cars or history.

Copies of National Geographic
Saviour of many a Monday morning deadline

Tucked between a history of Fleet Street and a sports car almanac from 1955 I have around 50 copies of National Geographic, given to me as a child. At the time they were a fairly unusual and bulky gift, but seemed invaluable for school projects. You just never knew when, as a nine year old, you might be asked to write an essay on Nahanni or The Aleutians. This was before the internet became available at home or even at school. Any resource that avoided a trip to the school library was invaluable.
These 50 copies were my World Wide Web. Now though, I didn’t even read the articles about those subjects listed above. I simply Googled the names and read a bit about them on Wikipedia.
This speed of access is a good thing, but sad at the same time because I probably won’t remember what or where the Nahanni is. I would have actually learnt something new and interesting if I made time to read the article.
Come the New Year though, these National Geographic will go to a charity shop, to be replaced by more books on subjects I already know about. And I suspect my brain will be a poorer place for it.


Education, education, education

In technology terms my Mum has come a long way in the past ten years. She used to view computers in the same way that I imagine blacksmiths viewed Karl Benz chugging past in his horseless carriage. It was the future, but somehow out of reach and not necessary for now.
Mum works for a successful education consultancy. They find schools and guardianship for overseas students seeking private education in the UK. The nature of her work meant that inevitably she succumbed to using a computer and her confidence quickly built. She has now worn out multiple laptops and printers, set up collaborative work areas, manages a database and more recently started using a Blackberry. I now get reminders about wearing a jumper via Blackberry Messenger.
However social media still eludes her. Or rather, she evades social media. I think this is mainly because she has heard lots of bad stories about Facebook in particular and not having used it herself, she doesn’t see the benefits.
This all came to a head when it transpired that a student had been posting comments about his school and living arrangements on Facebook and generally causing quite a bit of upset.

Westonbirt school in Gloucestershire
School is daunting and the web is a way to escape. This is Westonbirt School in England - nothing to do with the story in this post, but a great photo by

What to do? Mum realised that she couldn’t stop students using social networks (the fact she realised this seemed like quite a good starting point) so I suggested the following:

1. Contact the student in question and ask them to apologise to the people concerned. The comments were very personal and not necessary.

2. Acknowledge social media and offer some guidance. This won’t be the first or the last time that this happens. In fairness to students, if they are not shown any guidance about using social media, then how can they be expected to know any different? There is also a general duty of care that extends to students using the web safely.

3. Publish the guidance on the company website and make it part of the student induction pack.

4. Offer students a space, perhaps a Facebook page, where they can talk online if they want to let off steam or complain. At least by knowing where this space is, and seeing the comments that appear, the company has a chance to respond and deal with any issues.

Here’s the guidance I offered, which is based on some of the specific issues raised by students:

Using Facebook and other websites in a safe and fair way
We understand that you probably use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter every day. They are a great way to stay in contact with friends and family, share photos and experiences, and follow your favourite music, films or groups.
We want you to use and enjoy the internet, but we also want you to be safe and use these spaces in a sensible way.
When you are online, you are responsible for your behaviour in exactly the same way that you are when in school, at home, travelling or out having fun. When you are online you are still an ambassador for your family, your country and your school.
We have created a short guide to help you stay safe and out of trouble when using social network sites like Facebook.
1. Be safe: your online friends should be people you have met and know well. Never agree to meet someone who you have only ever met online.
2. Be secure: never share any personal details such as your address or birthday online.
3. Be fair: if you are upset, angry or frustrated about something speak to someone first. Writing an angry or offensive status update is unhelpful and can be very upsetting if you are talking about someone else.
4. Be responsible: if you have taken a photo or video with people in it, only share the photo or video if the people who appear in it are happy for you to do so. Always ask their permission first.
5. Be honest: always be yourself online. Do not try to hide behind a pretend photo or name.
Tip: before you do anything online, ask yourself ‘would I do this, or say the same thing, in a shop or on a plane?’ If you wouldn’t, then it is not a good idea.
Tip: you can change the privacy settings for sites such as Facebook, to protect some of your details. However, you must not assume that you can say anything just because your profile is private. When you publish something to the internet, it might stay there forever.

I need to find out how far the guidance has gone, but am hoping for an excuse to build a Facebook page in the New Year. Any amends or additions to the guidance gratefully received.