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HR teams need support to understand digital

Natasha Veenendaal
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The word ‘digital’ can be unhelpful or even misleading if it is not explained carefully. It is a widely used but often a poorly defined term.

At the same time, it’s a term that local government needs to get to grips with and not just those who are perceived to be working in ‘digital’ or technology roles, but across the workforce.

The Eduserv Executive Briefing Programme’s latest analysis is about skills in local government, and how these skills need to evolve if councils are able to take full advantage of the opportunity of digital business models.

The co-produced report ‘Skills for digital change’ from the Eduserv Executive Briefing Programme and PPMA is now available to download. It brings together a combination of insight from roundtable events with councils, expert witness interviews and a detailed survey of HR and other professionals in the sector.

As part of this work, Jos Creese and I recently facilitated a workshop at the Public Service People Manager’s Association conference. We split the room into teams and each was asked to assess the key digital skills required and barriers to development of these skills. We also asked them to recommend actions for HR leaders to prioritise for different stakeholder groups: the workforce in general, politicians, HR professionals, corporate management team and citizens.


eduserv workshop

eduserv workshop

Staff taking part in the workshop

Understanding digital

Quite quickly it was evident that the HR and organisational development professionals in the room were split into two distinct groups: those who ‘got’ digital and those who did not.

Take, for example, a discussion about politicians; the team’s discussions focused on technical competencies such as using iPads, understanding social media and virtual meeting skills. This is not to say that these skills don’t play a part, but technical skills are far less important that understanding the bigger picture of how digital can be applied to the benefit of the community. What local government needs is advocacy for digital at the political level and understanding that digital is more than ‘channel shift’.

In contrast the team that addressed the skills requirements of the workforce in general really got to grips with the bigger picture of digital and how it can help to change the focus to the customer need rather than organisational need. There is a change of mind-set required, and staff should be involved in designing services that will allow citizens to help themselves.

When submitting their feedback the team apologised because the skills they had identified were not “really technical” but that’s the whole point. To quote one of our report contributors, Dilys Wynn, former director of people services, Gloucestershire CC: “Digital is about applying a different style of thinking and working. The technology supports a different way of working, but it’s not about the technology itself.”

The actions this team identified to build skills in the workforce in general were to:

  • Define ‘digital’ for employees by starting the conversation about customer focus
  • Be open in addressing fears such as restructuring and job losses
  • Rethink learning and development around digital expectations, not just skills but also attitudes and behaviours
  • Review workforce policies in HR if they are counter to digital operation

The wider workforce will also need some practical technical skills, but as the research has shown, attaining these skills comes down to attitude more than anything else. The important part is that all staff need to feel involved and responsible for digital: it’s not someone else’s job to ‘do digital’.


The role of HR professionals

The analysis of the team that looked at their own skills – those of HR professionals – was also really interesting. This team was brave enough to address head-on the fear that HR professionals have to change, and the fear that they might lose control or status.

There is also concern from HR that the ‘people’ aspects of their role may be degraded with a dominance of digital. In practice, HR needs to do more to embrace IT and digital working, preserving the importance of people in the process of this inevitable change.

HR professionals need to be involved from the start in transformation programmes, because they understand how to design organisations. The strategies, policies, processes and technology that HR professionals put in place will shape the culture of the organisations, and it is culture that defines digital change more than technology. 

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