Sustainable processes for building digital skills

This case study by Rob Cawston, Head of Digital Media, National Museums Scotland and Dr Karin de Wild forms part of University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums.

Karin worked with Rob in National Museums Scotland for a year, developing processes for building digital skills and confidence within the museum.

JUMP TO: What was the thinking that got you started? | Why was this important to your organisation? | What did you do to implement this? | What happened? | What did you learn? | What next?

Please note this case study was written in February 2020 and describes work that took place in 2019, pre-Covid.

What was the thinking that got you started?

The question we began with was:

‘How might we help museum people have confidence to make/create a plan to identify and use the digital skills they’ve got, improve where they need to, and understand the impact on themselves and beyond?’

In Phase 1 of the One by One research it was identified that within museums, there is ‘little evidence for coherent, sustainable programmes to upskill staff in relationship to digital’. One of the recommendations within this report is that the museum sector would benefit from sustainable digital capacity-building. To address this need we adapted the research question to:

‘How might we implement processes that can support museums to continuously build their digital confidence?’

Why was this important to your organisation?

National Museums Scotland comprises four museums and a collections centre that is home to millions of items not currently on display. The organisation has a well-defined Digital Media Strategy and overarching Digital Strategy in place, there are well established HR processes to assess individual development and an extensive training programme offered to staff. Throughout the organisation there are teams that excel in using different digital tools, produce a wide range of high quality digital content and follow digital best practices.

However, like many organisations of this size, change can be slow to implement with ‘digital’ often seen as the preserve of individual experts, departments working in siloes within a hierarchical structure and the demands of busy workloads often hindering participation in new initiatives.

There was an ambition at the start of the One by One research projects, to find ways to incorporate digital skills development into existing, well-established processes, to energise individuals about their own digital development and broaden understanding of what ‘digital’ means to different teams across the organisation. Karin’s work at National Museums Scotland was one of five such research projects.

What did you do to implement this?

We began by setting up a focus group that would bring together people from various teams and with a wide range of knowledge. This idea was initiated by the Digital Media Team and Human Resources. As the digital agenda is often led from the top, a selection of team leaders was asked to join as members. This included the heads of Collection Services, ICT, Natural Sciences, Science and Technology (both curatorial teams) and the manager of the Enablers (a team that is part of Learning and Programmes).

First, we designed and tested a process for individual staff members to identify their current digital skills and the areas of improvement to help them in their specific roles. We named this process: Developing Digital Potential. It involved line managers across the organisation having open and exploratory conversations with their staff members about their digital skills and ambitions. This was then written up between both the staff member and their manager in a Digital Development Plan, which set out current skills and training needs across the next 12 months and in the longer term which in turn helped the HR department to identify learning needs across the organisation.

We also gathered further insights into the workplace culture. Through an online survey, staff shared their perception of how the museum supports their digital development and how they facilitate a culture in which digital skills can thrive. We received 115 responses from staff across the museum. The result were presented back to senior leaders and provided valuable insights into what was going well and where there are areas for improvement.

While meeting on a monthly basis, the focus group also tried to identify where the museum sees itself in the upcoming years and which actions are needed to develop the skills and culture to move forward. In each meeting, we discussed an area in which digital impacts the work culture and where we might need to progress. Everyone was encouraged to share their knowledge, ideas and concerns and all were treated as worthy of consideration. The agenda was also set by all members of the focus group. Everyone was asked to identify subjects for discussion, these were collected by the chair and used to formulate a theme for each meeting.

We started with a meeting about digital skills: What are digital skills? How to identify skills gaps and build the necessary skills to realise our ambitions? After that, there were still related questions that we wanted to further explore, so we decided to organise another meeting with a specific focus on digital skills development. We discussed the importance of having people who are ‘change-orientated’ and have the ability to learn and grow. Do we value these skills enough and can we support continuous self-development? We invited Yoti Goudas, another One by One Digital Fellow, to speak. Yoti talked to the group about strategies for informal learning and how to organise Communities of Practice.

The next meeting was about collaboration: How to get people to collaborate across teams and in networks outside of the organisation? What is the importance of networks to follow digital trends? And how can digital tools, like Teams, help you manage networks and support a collaborative work environment?

We concluded with a meeting about the importance of direction: How to provide vision and purpose? In this meeting, we further discussed the museum’s digital strategy, one that goes beyond implementing technologies, but instead includes strategic goals to adapt the museum to the changing digital environment. We were joined by Marco Mason, another One by One Digital Fellow, who shared his experience with visioning in Derby Museums.

What happened?

Focus group participants welcomed the chance to join with other colleagues from across the organisation and discuss topics in an open and creative way. They gained confidence and knowhow, and developed enthusiasm for learning more and staying ahead of the curve. It encouraged us to listen to the needs of others, adopt a learning mindset, foster digital initiatives and open up to experiment with new ways of working.

Based on an analysis of the evidence collected, we identified four areas in which the museum is doing well, as well as aspects in the current culture where we could improve both in the short and long-term. These findings provided us with a clear focus to present to senior leaders, helping decision-makers prioritise which actions could be taken to move forward.

At the end of the research project, the outcomes were presented back to the organisation as part of an ongoing seminar series. These meetings were open to all staff within the museum to encourage communication across the organisation on topics of common interest in a way where everyone was given the chance to share their thoughts, ask questions and discuss possible solutions.

What did you learn?

The initial conversations with team leaders and managers revealed that they are often not aware of the digital skills development needs of their staff and that there was confusion around what the term ‘digital’ meant when applied in different work contexts.

The Developing Digital Potential process was seen as a valuable way to address these issues and to consider individual development needs. The open discussion process wasn’t reliant on completing a set form and took into consideration long-term needs and ambitions rather than only focusing on annual objectives.

A lot of valuable insight was gained through the staff survey into blockers of progress, views of what digital meant in different contexts across the organisation and a variety of measures to benchmark against.

The digital focus group revealed that a real appetite for change exists across the organisation – from learning and events to collections and curatorial teams. Focusing on specific topics each time and with help from external experts, the group gave people the opportunity to learn, share and collaborate in an informal, approachable and non-judgmental environment.

What next?

National Museums Scotland is planning to continue the digital focus group to both discuss a range of topics around digital skills and agree an action plan for the organisation. They hope to work closely with a newly appointed Head of HR to assess where digital skills development could be incorporated into the existing appraisal processes and how they are considered through the recruitment process – from job descriptions to possible incorporation into the existing competency framework used to grade job roles and track development of staff.

Related resources

This ‘how to’ guide – Developing staff digital skills: approach and process – written by Karin and based upon the work she did with the team at National Museums Scotland, is designed to help museum leaders to identify digital potential within the museum workforce, build a digitally literate workforce one step at a time, and support continuous learning and development.

The resource comes with downloadable, customisable templates to support skills development processes in your organisation.

How can I adapt this idea for my museum?

This approach is suitable for all kinds of museum whatever the size, governance or collection focus. It is also suitable whatever stage of digital literacy you and your staff and volunteers are at. Digital use in museums often develops organically, in reaction to new opportunities and technologies. If you don’t already take a strategic approach to it, assessing and improving digital literacy and confidence is a good way to take control of the situation:

If this approach is new to you, this process will help you to work out what skills and competencies you already have within your team and what you want from digital technologies. It will equip you to react effectively to digital changes and opportunities in the future.

If you are in a small museum or service you may find it helpful to join forces with other museums or cultural organisations and approach the process of building digital literacy and confidence together. By identifying the skills that lie within your network, you may be able to find ways of sharing them effectively for mutual benefit.

If your museum is already confident in digital use, the digital skills survey may help identify particular knowledge gaps, skills-sharing and training opportunities in your workforce and help you find new and innovative ways to explore digital opportunities. For you, the focus group may act as a means of identifying and exploring opportunities to grow and share your digital confidence and increase your digital literacy across the whole organisation and even beyond it.

Dr Karin de Wild was one of One by One’s five Digital Fellows from 2018-20. She is now a lecturer at University of Leiden in the Netherlands.