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Developing new digital skills – is training always the answer?

With rapid moves towards different models of learning thanks to COVID19 restrictions, lots of people are looking closely at staff development for digital skills. Chris challenges to notion that developing digital practice is all about training. He offers a model for improving your chances of success in supporting the development of new capabilities.


In which Chris introduces you to Action Mapping and the most powerful question in skills development (in his opinion). But that comes about halfway down.

During our last webinar we asked participants about the most important things that their institution should start doing to best respond to COVID19 restrictions in the coming year.

One of the biggest themes was about developing staff digital skills. So that’s what this blog post is about.

Jisc already does a lot to support digital skills development through our subject specialists and our Digital Capabilities Service. You can check out their pages for free resources and guidance on what digital capabilities mean and how it applies to different roles in education.

How to change practice, not what practice to change

But let’s assume that what we’re interested in is how we change practice; enabling people to do new things or to do existing things but in different ways.

Working for Jisc, what we see happening a lot can be boiled down to a simple set of questions:

  • What new digital thing do we want to get people to do?
  • How do we train them to do it?

I want to challenge the idea that training is always the answer to how we get people to change the things they do. I’m sure everyone reading this has had an experience of a training programme that has led to very little change in the way people do things.

This is more important than just saving people’s time. More than ever now, we need make sure that resources are targeted in the right place and at the right time, something that will likely be increasingly important in the new economic environment.

In our Digital Leaders Programme, for the last few years we have looked at an idea called Action Mapping. This isn’t something developed by Jisc. It’s principle proponent is Cathy Moore, an elearning consultant; you can find out more about what she does on her site.

We’ve found that Action Mapping is a very useful way of approaching change in digital practice so could be something to consider when helping teaching staff to develop their online skills, or if you’re introducing a new suite of tools to your professional services staff, for instance.

Our aim is to make sure that resources are targeted in the right place.

I did a short 30 minute workshop at Connect More Scotland in 2018.

…but here’s a summary of what it’s about.

Step 1 – Define the goals and roles

We’re talking here about behaviour change so goals should be expressed as things which you should be able to see people do or hear them say. Choose your verbs carefully.

By roles, we mean who it is that is actually going to be delivering on the goal.

If you know about SMART objectives, this should be familiar. Something along the lines of:

“We are going to change something we can measure by this amount over this timescale as these particular people achieve this goal.”

Step 2 – Ask “What do these people need to do or know in order to achieve that outcome?”

Be as specific as you can here as it will help with the later stages.


With these sorts of challenges, the natural question to ask is “how do we get people to do these new things?”

Action mapping says to flip that on its head. Instead, ask “why aren’t they doing it already?”

There are likely to be multiple answers to that question. Don’t stop at the easy ones, and don’t rely on your own assumptions. Talk to the people involved. Bring them into this discussion as partners in finding solutions.

Also, look for instances where people are actually doing it already. You’ll be able to learn a lot from talking to those people.

You should now have a detailed list of issues why something isn’t happening?

Step 4 – Classify your issues.

Think ESKiMO;

  • Environment (E) – are the reasons its not happening outside of the control of the people you identified in Step 1? Do they have the resources, the tools, the funding? Do their normal objectives mean that they have to prioritise other things? Does the prevailing organisational culture work against achieving the goals?
  • Skills (S) – Are they aware of the tasks they need to do and enabled to do them?
  • Knowledge (K) – is the knowledge they need available to them? It could either be information they have to carry around in their heads, or just be available in a place they know about
  • Motivation (Mo) – Do they have the will to carry it out?

The last three (S,K, Mo) work a little bit like the fire triangle from that online fire safety training you probably had to do this year. All three need to be present for new practice to happen and to be sustainable.

Step 5 – Plan your actions to address the issues

Running a training workshop won’t be effective at addressing all of those issues.

If you run a training session, for example, but the issues are all environmental, then nothing will change. Plus you will have wasted a lot of time, effort and probably goodwill.

Training can help with Skills and Knowledge issues but it shouldn’t be seen as the only option. There are other ways of supporting skills and knowledge development that may be more effective. What about coaching or peer to peer learning? Would it help to provide one-minute training videos for just-in-time learning on the job? What about making your intranet or VLE more user-friendly and accessible.

Good training can be motivational, but t will only get you so far and probably won’t be equally motivational for everyone. Consider a number of ways to motivate people. It might be something extrinsic like pay and rewards, or intrinsic like demonstrating how the new behaviour is the best way of achieving one of their deeper personal goals.

It’s when considering motivations that it’s doubly important to recognise and address your own assumptions. Too often we hear people say “oh they just don’t want to do it” and leave it at that; it’s a handy get-out.

But what if refusal to engage in something was an indicator of a different, overriding motivation? Or what if a lack of engagement was a by-product of a larger, more serious systemic cultural problem in your organisation? I’ve pointed in the direction of Donna Lanclos’ writing about this before in other topics and I recommend you check it out.

A final thought

Action mapping isn’t a magic bullet but it does offer a helpful framework for change.

We want people to be enabled and empowered to change their digital practice. What we absolutely do not want is the responsibility for a failure in changing practice landing on the wrong people. Especially when, like now, those people are already under enormous amounts of pressure.

Photo by Peggy Anke from Pexels



By Chris Thomson

I'm a Subject Specialist at Jisc focusing on online learning and digital student experience.

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