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Digital Workplace Impact investigates and explores the ideas, practices and people impacting the new digital worlds of work.
- Emma Weston OBE, Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Digital Unite
What are the opportunities opened up to organizations by focusing on digital inclusion? In the UK alone, it is currently estimated that there are 20.5 million people with low digital skills or engagement.
In this latest episode of Digital Workplace Impact, Nancy Goebel catches up with Emma Weston OBE, CEO and Founder of Digital Unite, one of the UK’s most innovative digital inclusion organizations. Digital Unite sets out to inspire positive change through digital skills support.
Together, Nancy and Emma explore various ways of bridging the digital divide through practices such as digital champion networks. They share advice on creating a digital daisy chain that links inclusion from the digital workplace to customer experiences to wider community experiences.
Using case studies and insights, they uncover the power and potential for digital workplace teams to join with their diversity, equity and corporate social responsibility colleagues, to create a more digitally inclusive world.
Join us to hear more about digital inclusivity and the potential to make a difference to customers and communities everywhere.
Show notes, links and resources for this episode:
[00:00:00.690] – Emma Weston
The one I’ve been waiting for Nancy for some time. But I think we’re closer to getting to because of because of the pandemic, actually, is that we take a much more businesslike approach to digital inclusion, because it cannot be some sort of add on agenda where we get to the people who’ve been left behind when we get to them and when the funding is there. We are going to have to do this differently. Which means that businesses of all hues and shapes and sizes really finally understand the inherent benefit of their organizations, of their communities being digitally included. And when they understand they have a vested interest in driving digital inclusion, we will start to create more business like models to deal with that and drive it. And that, I think, will spawn real innovation.
[00:01:04.550] – Nancy Goebel
In this episode of Digital Workplace Impact, I had a chance to catch up with Emma Weston, CEO and founder of Digital Unite. In case you’re yet unfamiliar with Digital Unite, it’s one of the UK’s most innovative digital inclusion organizations. Emma and team work with public, third and private sector organizations to influence digital inclusion policies and Practises. Our conversation today explores various ways of bridging the digital divide through practices, such as digital champion network. It offers advice about creating a digital daisy chain that links inclusion from the digital workplace to customer experiences to wider community experiences. To my mind, the latter is clearly a call to action for digital workplace teams to link arms with their diversity, equity and inclusion teams, as well as ESG efforts within corporate social responsibility. In the show notes, you’ll find a couple of interesting resources from Digital Unite. A mix of case studies, stats and facts, as well as a framework for running a digital champion programme and, of course, that resource that wouldn’t be complete without a few goodies from the DWG knowledge base, you’ll find links to insights about both inside out digital leadership and raising your organizations’ digital IQ.
[00:02:35.390] – Nancy Goebel
Join me now for an interesting chat with Emma. Happy listening, as always.
[00:02:44.190] – Nancy Goebel
So, Emma, I’m just delighted to have a chance to catch up with you today. Thank you so much for coming into the studio.
[00:02:51.600] – Emma Weston
It’s an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. It’s very good to get an opportunity to speak about my stuff to an audience such as yours. And you have. So thank you for the invitation.
[00:03:06.700] – Nancy Goebel
My pleasure. And, of course, we were brought together via Elizabeth Marsh, who is our Director of Research at DWG, and she speaks very highly of you. And as she and I were chatting about the potential of bringing you onto the podcast, we talked about the mission behind Digital Unite and the idea that you’re helping organizations get digital inclusion started is such an important part of digital transformation. And so I think it’s always important to start with defining a space when we have a discussion like this, so just to get things set in context. Can you define for us what digital inclusion means and your recommended path for organizations looking to level up in the age of hybrid working?
[00:04:06.870] – Emma Weston
Yeah, sure, I will give some context. So, I have been working in digital inclusion in the UK for 27 years. It’s been my only job. And I say that because I think it’s important to remember that this is not something that just popped up with Covid. Digital inclusion has been an imperative for as long as we’ve been trying to use digital technologies in a public, social and personal business context. Right. So, from my point of view, when I started Digital Unite 27 years ago, the digital inclusion driver at that point was the kind of birth of the worldwide web in the UK and people starting to use websites. And I’m going back such a long way that it feels almost like a different landscape to me in terms of the technology and the access to the technology, to some extent, also the pricing of the technology. This was a time when we had people diving under desks to plug modems in and that funny, weird noise and blah, blah, blah. But what I was trying to do at that point in time was really very simple. I was trying to support my ageing parents, to realise the benefits of being connected to the Internet, to use websites, to use email.
[00:05:38.220] – Emma Weston
Now, that basic premise is what drives Digital Unite now in 2022, I am still trying to support other people, to support their ageing parents and the population in general, to use digital technologies in their life, in the workplace. Because despite that journey that I’ve been on for 27 years in the UK, we still have 20.5 million people with very low digital skills or engagement. That’s a very big problem to still have 27 years later. So although the way I work has changed in terms of how I deliver on that gender, the imperative is still absolutely the same.
[00:06:25.030] – Nancy Goebel
Just to add to that, there’s a whole new lens that we need to consider in the age of the great resignation, where there may be people who need to come back into the workforce because they have unique skill sets, those digital skills may not be as sharp. In such instances, the know-how is critically important. And so there’s a gap to bridge for those who may be coming back into the workforce at later stages in life as well.
[00:07:01.070] – Emma Weston
Yeah, for me, it’s the really big elephant in the room. Okay, so Digital Unite works predominantly when we talk about workforces. We work in the UK predominantly with what we call the social sector. So that’s charities, local authorities, social housing providers, those types of businesses. When we’re talking about supporting them to transform digitally, what we’re trying to do is address their workforce, their inherent delivery capacity to do that. So that includes the skills in the workforce, it includes the technology of the workforce and all that stuff, but it also is so very linked to the capacity of their customers to also access the services that they digitise. So the two things have to go hand in hand when we look at that, and I think that’s something that actually should be driving the way all businesses think about digital transformation. So when you’re thinking about workforce skills, you need to be thinking about the skills of your customers almost in parallel. But it’s particularly important in our sector because when we think about digital exclusion, most of the people who remain severely digitally excluded in the UK, but it won’t be different anywhere else in the world, are those people who have additional needs quite often and suffer from other forms of exclusion.
[00:08:34.050] – Emma Weston
So when we think about the support and the transformation of these workforces, we have to be thinking always about you think about your own skill set, your own digital confidence in your workplace, your own digital service delivery. You must never lose sight of the person you’re wanting to deliver that service to, otherwise you’re going to be growing skills almost in a vacuum.
[00:08:56.730] – Nancy Goebel
And just to bring back the second part of my question, around the age of hybrid working, because it is kind of birthing itself anew the things that we were doing the last couple of years were really pandemic working, whereas now you see longer term plans emerging inside of organizations, regardless of industry, vertical. And so as you’re talking with organizations, public sector or otherwise, is there a specific path that you’re recommending in today’s environment to help organizations level up around digital inclusion?
[00:09:43.090] – Emma Weston
Nancy, that’s a big question. It’s all about a sort of organizational intelligence, isn’t it, I think in terms of planning. So in order to get to the point of understanding the skills you need in that workplace, hybrid or no, you need to understand the overall context and vision of the organization you’re working with and for including its objectives in relation to its customers or service users. So I think one of the big learnings that I’ve seen, it’s not that it wasn’t happening before, Nancy, it’s just the pandemic accelerated everything, I think, in terms of impetus and drive to find some better solutions more quickly to this stuff, is that you need to really start that process culturally, I think, as an organization. And that requires not just leadership, it requires also a sort of willingness to engage the whole of an organization in that process, for it not to be a top-down process, because the organization, in that sense, when it progresses or transforms digitally, has to act as a sort of organism rather than anything command and control sort of thing. I think one of the things we’ve really seen in the last couple of years is that sense of change and planning for change being driven from the top down to the bottom up because, especially in the space in which we operate, we had people who were trying to still support residents or citizens to buy food, right, get medical attention, do these basic civic functions in a pandemic where the need for that stuff was completely exacerbated.
[00:11:48.610] – Emma Weston
And actually, at that point, the whole organization has to understand, how do I get everyone in my organization to the point where they can support this person to do this? And that’s a skill set and a requirement of confidence, motivation and understanding that has to be really ingrained in the way that business operates. So if you’re asking me, how do you get to that point, you need to be supporting and providing information and examples to these organizations of how they achieve that transformation in as many ways as possible, pitched at as many levels as possible, where the inclusivity of the approach within that workforce is, frankly, as inclusive as possible. Does that make sense?
[00:12:39.690] – Nancy Goebel
Absolutely. And one of the things we talk about in our research around organizational readiness is to make sure that the paths, the resources, the examples are shared in such a way that they apply to individuals, to teams and the organization at large. So it helps people think about the different lenses that are required in such a journey.
[00:13:09.650] – Emma Weston
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. And I think the other thing that’s really important in that is that we make no assumptions about the starting point of anyone. So no one is made to feel silly, no one is made to feel out of date. It’s not a deficit agenda, it’s one of possibility and potential. And I think that’s really, really critical. We had both huge examples of lack and lack of readiness in the pandemic with our work, but we always try to reframe that as huge opportunity for change and the kind of reinvention and refreshment and that’s sort of at once a deeply exciting and kind of vertiginous place to be. And again, for the entire organization, the people right on the edge of service delivery and the people in the boardrooms. But I think there obviously needs to be an emotional levelling within that conversation and that it’s seen as something that has the collective potential. We all have a part to play in this. We’ve all got gaps, we’ve all got opportunities, and I think that’s an important and a powerful piece of the story.
[00:14:37.390] – Nancy Goebel
It’s almost thinking about it along the lines of their hard skills that are required, but equally the soft need to be factored into the mix.
[00:14:47.710] – Emma Weston
Yeah, they do. And I think this is at the heart of our approach at Digital Unite, because I’ve done a lot of things in 27 years, but the thing that we’ve kind of focused on as a business in the last ten to 15 is what we call a digital champion model. So all our support, our training, all our methodologies, are geared around supporting organizations to build capacity through Champions. And this model of peer to peer instruction and peer-to-peer support and confidence has, I think, absolutely massive potential in addressing the skills and balances within the workplace and with the customers and service users who interact with those workplaces. And we are using it and have used it for years very effectively, both in a sort of official way where you are trying to build staff and employee capacity to be those Champions, and in a very informal way where you’re using volunteers to deliver that function, and in hybrid model where you’re using both because it’s ultimately people who will drive the adoption of technology. It’s not the technology per se and we must not lose sight of that. It’s the most powerful tool we have I think.
[00:16:12.490] – Nancy Goebel
The idea of digital champions and these internal networks is something that comes up quite often in discussions around change management within digital workplace teams. And so I’m interested to stay here for a few minutes and unpack some of the good practices that you’ve seen in this area, because I think people will want to learn what good looks like from your wisdom.
[00:16:39.460] – Emma Weston
Oh, I have a lot of examples of what good looks like and you would have to come on a little mini break and be talked through it all. I think as to your point earlier, we are always trying to gather case study stuff around this, as well as measuring the quant side of these interactions. But, for example, I know that 80% of the people who sign up to our Digital champion programmes in their workforces do so because they’re motivated to help other people. And that is a really big figure as far as I’m concerned, because it shows us both the potential and the appetite for the model. And then I think, from our perspective, if you’ve got that appetite, what you really need to do is create some sort of consistency and framework and benchmarking for people to develop themselves as Champions in a fairly uniform way, so that we have a collective idea of what good looks like. So it’s not just my idea of what good looks like. And that’s why at Digital Unite we do a lot of work. Most of our work is about the training and resourcing of digital champions.
[00:18:01.470] – Emma Weston
So what makes you able to pass those skills on and support someone else? And what does good look like when we’re working with people who have specific needs around usability accessibility? What does good look like if we’re working with older people who have another set of needs around using technology? What does good look like if we’re working with younger people? We’ve tried to model that stuff so that people have a starting place. It’s not about judgement at all. If it’s like driving a car, how do I know what good looks like? Well, we’ve collectively decided what good looks like and we’ve constructed a practice that ends up in a little test. And that’s our universal way of understanding what makes a good driver. The same thing, I think, is very true of the champion concept. And then when we get good champions who have done good work, and that could be measured in terms of quantity and quality of both of those things, and the benefit accruing to that person of making that change happen. Because I think that’s another very important piece of champion model. Not only does it drive skills, it also drives wellbeing.
[00:19:22.940] – Emma Weston
And there are benefits accruing to the champion as well as the person the champion is helping, then we share those examples and we inspire other people to do that bit as well.
[00:19:35.550] – Nancy Goebel
I can see that we’re very much kindred spirits. Within Digital Workplace Group benchmarking is at the heart of what we do. And when we’re talking with our members, we always advise them to make sure that they have the strong data input on the quantitative side of things. But that ultimately what stays with stakeholders and senior sponsors of digital workplace initiatives, is those stories, those examples. It’s not always easy to recall the numbers, but it certainly has an emotional impact on people when those qualitative stories bubble up to the top.
[00:20:25.080] – Emma Weston
Yes, absolutely. And I would always advocate a mixture of both also, because I think from the organization’s point of view, it’s very good to go into these projects understanding what you’re trying to get to, because if you don’t have a vision for that, how can you get there? You know what I mean? We have an understanding of what sort of volume of people do we want involved in this change programme and what time period do we think that’s going to be realisable in and all the rest of it. And then we can build that piece out. And alongside it, the case study, the emotional book, the quality piece, if you want. The human piece, Nancy. I suppose that’s the thing, isn’t it? Again, coming back to the real driver in this is actually a human piece. What motivates us really, absolutely is, I think, a sense of being able to help other people and a shared sense of what success and benefits looked like to everyone involved in that matrix.
[00:21:32.510] – Nancy Goebel
That makes perfect sense. And I guess you see quite a spectrum of players in your circles. And I’m curious as to whether there are any examples of practices that you see in and amongst those advanced players that you can share with us, whether it’s in the scope of digital champions or wider digital inclusion efforts. I don’t want to say initiatives, because that’s just a big beginning, middle and end.
[00:22:05.000] – Emma Weston
We did a really specific piece of analysis in the last year around the COVID factor in terms of accelerating these behaviours, I think. And one of the things that came out of that was that we could evidence that 67% of the organizations we’ve been working with who used champion models specifically had increased their digital transformation capability. And I thought that was a very important figure, actually, that they could actually evidence the fact that using a people-centred model to drive that digital skills change piece had actually got into the weave and the weft of the organization, the strategic strategy for the organization. And I found that very powerful. I’ve seen some really excellent examples, particularly with social housing providers and local community groups and organizations of digital inclusion outreach work in the community, which has also involved things like technology and device lending and gifting schemes, as well as trying to really kick start and support the skills piece. These organizations were prepared to invest in buying and giving out tablets and dongles, because the data and the hardware aspect of the digital inclusion agenda is equally important as the skills bit. And we’ve seen quite a few examples over the last year and a half of really pretty impressive programmes that blended champions with access to that practical stuff for people, so that once they got on that journey, they could keep on that journey.
[00:24:10.600] – Emma Weston
I’ve seen some other really excellent work with particular groups where there were other issues or challenges as well. And one of those groups in the last year for us has been people with learning disabilities. Now, people with learning disabilities have suffered from greater exclusion in relation to skills investment in their support services around their health and well being, and again with COVID we see so much of this moving online, necessarily. So we have been working on some programmes with charities and organizations in the UK who work specifically with this cohort of people, and we have seen some brilliant work there as well. And that involved, again, the application of the champion model in a layered approach. So we supported the people with learning disabilities themselves to be champions for their peers. And we did that by producing training materials and resources in easy read formats, which were accessibility primed, which had been very carefully designed and thought through. And they took that stuff away and they really made it something spectacular. And the enthusiasm and the sort of it was kind of contagious, Nancy, because I think there had been so little specific investment in that stuff here, certainly in the UK, in relation to the technology piece.
[00:25:57.530] – Emma Weston
And then the second part of that approach was we rolled out the champion model with their carers, who may or may not be parents, they may be informal carers, they may be formal carers. So you have this sort of dovetailing of two champion networks within that cohort around that agenda. And that has been, we’ve seen some great work done, actually.
[00:26:25.470] – Nancy Goebel
And I guess one of the things I’m curious to know if you’ve seen any interesting examples of innovation in this space.
[00:26:35.490] – Emma Weston
In relation to the programmes with people with learning disabilities. I talked about one of the innovations. It’s going to just sound like it’s just about me. Was that Digital Unite, so we have online digital champion training platforms that are full of the e-learning courses. There are other training elements and resources, and our clients in the social and community sector use those platforms to train and support their champions. In relation to this cohort we did innovate at speed and we actually iterated that platform specifically for people with learning disabilities, so it was based on something we had, but we used innovation, I suppose, and clear sight to actually make that fit for purpose for this cohort. So that’s one example I can think of quite quickly.
[00:27:33.870] – Nancy Goebel
Any other innovation-centred examples in the wider digital inclusion arena that are standouts for you as well?
[00:27:43.430] – Emma Weston
Well, another one would be a Digital Unite stand out. But, again, am I allowed to keep talking about myself? Because it’s fairly one sided, but I think it might be interesting to you from your perspective. The other thing that we were really conscious of was, can we not do more to leverage employee volunteering in the digital inclusion space? Because if we’re talking about the real extension of champion models, if we could plug people in workplaces who were digitally confident into their communities, to the places where we have that deficit and that lack, we’ve got additional capacity using that model. And we did some innovation around that with one of our corporate partners and created a training programme for their volunteer employees. And we have had 900 people go through that in the first year. And there was a digital inclusion skills training course which resulted in them making a digital skills pledged to someone in their local social community networks. And that, for me, has massive potential, because if we could get employers to recycle or redirect some of the digital workforce skills they have already and are also growing back into the places where we have it lacking in the community, I think that could exponentially drive this agenda.
[00:29:30.600] – Emma Weston
And we need new ways of trying to drive this agenda because it cannot be possible that in 2022 we can have 20.5 million people in the UK without good enough digital confidence. That’s an unconscionable amount of people, frankly. So, yeah, I’m very excited about that.
[00:29:54.090] – Nancy Goebel
That sounds like a strong use of resources that are readily available. It’s around activating them and channelling their activities. So I thought that was quite an interesting share. I know that everyone is always trying to anticipate what’s next. So if you had to pull out your crystal ball, what do you think, at an industry level, might be the top three, four, five developments around digital inclusion in the next few years?
[00:30:29.370] – Emma Weston
Well, the one I’ve been waiting for, Nancy, for some time, but I think we’re closer to getting to because of the pandemic, actually, is that we take a much more business like approach to digital inclusion because it cannot be some sort of add on agenda where we get to the people who’ve been left behind when we get to them and when the funding is there, we are going to have to do this differently. Which means that businesses of all hues and shapes and sizes really finally understand the inherent benefit for their organizations, of their communities being digitally included. And when they understand they have a vested interest in driving digital inclusion, we will start to create more business like models to deal with that and drive it. And that, I think, will spawn real innovation, because it’s like the penny will drop, I think. And I think to some extent I’ve seen in the last year or so I’ve seen that starting to happen, we would not have come up with a programme like the employee volunteering digital inclusion programme I was just describing that was a child of a pandemic. And if we can keep that level of adaption going and the energy for it, that would be the first thing I would want to see in my crystal ball.
[00:32:14.290] – Emma Weston
We have a collective interest in this agenda. All of us, as individuals and as employees and our workforces, have the capacity not just to think of the difference they make at work, but think about the difference their work makes in the widest possible sense. And I think there’s a very symbiotic sort of regenerative relationship there. And I think we really do need some new models, we need some new thinking around how we sow up the world of work and the world of the social environment, the community environment. So that’s both Nancy, what I would like to see happen and what I think is already probably starting to happen.
[00:33:05.350] – Nancy Goebel
And just thinking about the future. I think it’s also important, given the audience here, to share your best advice to those leading digital workplace programmes inside of their organizations. I’ve certainly heard a clear call to action to share your wisdom, share your experience in your wider communities. But as those digital workplace teams look inwardly and the work that they’re doing to enable digital inclusion inside of their organizations, what’s your best advice?
[00:33:45.010] – Emma Weston
Think of this like a moving walkway. Bring everyone on it and move through it with the people, because the things you have come up with are about meeting the requirements and your anticipation of the changing requirements of your workforce. I think that in order to stay fresh and stay ahead of the change that’s happening now, which you need to be prepared for in the future, a very open mindset where you’re listening, you’re not just leading, but you’re listening to the skills and the requirements and the needs and the gaps and the offers of your workplaces. Because I think workplaces have great wisdom and creativity within them and actually giving people a way of contributing to more than just their workforce and work environment, but through their work environment is very powerful. And I think that could be things like encouraging people to share their curiosity and their questions around digital and think about the extrapolation of that in a peer-to-peer sense in the workplace and always beyond the workplace, we try and blur the boundaries between the workplace and what’s outside the workplace in terms of the access to skills, the inclusion agenda. Do you see what I mean?
[00:35:30.570] – Nancy Goebel
I certainly do. It’s almost a ripple effect if you’re looking at it from the digital workplace leaders point of view. By virtue of creating an environment where the digital workplace is an inclusive workplace, it then pays dividends for the customer experience, and then the customer experience, as that becomes more digital inclusive, can ripple through to the wider community in which these organizations operate.
[00:36:04.240] – Emma Weston
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And I think also asking the right sort of questions and thinking about things in a sort of applied sense, so it’s not good enough to give people a smartphone. You need to explain and be thoughtful and mindful about why people should want to do this. What is it going to do to help them live their lives? What is it going to do to help them lead better lives? I think digital workplaces can be guilty of assumption, I think, because digitally mature workforces are so far away from what digital exclusion really looks like, that they can be disconnected from it. And I’m not blaming anyone. Again, when you can drive a car, you kind of forget what it’s like if you can’t. But workplaces have a duty, I think, to keep circling back to that, to the almost the lowest common denominator. What does this look like for someone that has no idea what I’m talking about or no idea why I would use this? And I think if you can keep asking those questions and keep seeing this through the eyes of someone who’s got a very different lens on it, you will keep that thinking fresh.
[00:37:31.610] – Emma Weston
And I think that, if you’re mindful, of those lowest common denominators or the biggest challenges, you will end up designing everything for the better. It’s like there’s an accumulation of good in that loop.
[00:37:50.930] – Nancy Goebel
Absolutely. And so we’re just about at the end of our time together, Emma, is there a question you are hoping I’d ask, and I didn’t?
[00:38:01.190] – Emma Weston
I don’t think so, Nancy, no.
[00:38:04.430] – Nancy Goebel
Then I would just open it up to any final thoughts or reflections you’d like to share with our audience.
[00:38:11.110] – Emma Weston
I would say be excited about the power you have and the potential you have and get involved. That’s what I’d say I think.
[00:38:23.230] – Nancy Goebel
Well, we’ve had a clear call to action as part of this conversation and it’s been just delightful chatting with you and getting a deeper insight into the work that you’re doing at Digital Unite and how that’s advancing the broader digital inclusion approach to things. So I want to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to chat with me and looking forward to sharing this conversation with others.
[00:38:54.860] – Emma Weston
Well, thank you very much for having me, Nancy. It’s been lovely to be here and to chat to you and thank you for your perspicacious questions and I hope I have answered them, if not fully, but at least intelligibly.
[00:39:12.170] – Nancy Goebel
Absolutely. We’ve got some great pearls of wisdom that I think people can take away from this conversation and put to use themselves and within their teams and wider organizations. So thank you for sharing.
[00:39:28.400] – Emma Weston
That’s great. Thank you.
[00:39:32.030] – Nancy Goebel
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