How to inspire curiosity when growing digital capabilities

Curiosity is the natural human tendency to want to learn and understand more about the world around us; it drives us to ask questions, seek new knowledge and challenge the status quo. So how can the public sector build that into its culture and capabilities?

With the demand of digital talent at an all time high and pressure to upskill existing employees in a range of new areas, keeping that spark of curiosity alive has become even more important. Against this backdrop, three senior civil servants from the Ministry of Justice, the Central Digital and Data Office and the Government of Canada discuss what tools and techniques are being used to keep the workforce curious and engaged. 

Recognise and reward

Thomas Beautyman, Deputy Director Government Digital Capability at the Cabinet Office, emphasises the need for leaders to establish a culture where being curious is “encouraged and rewarded.” 

He stresses the importance of creating an environment where there’s a learning orientation as much as a performance orientation. This meansthomasbeautyman “giving people the opportunity to learn through training and buddying, but also having the flexibility to reflect and test what they've learnt,” he says. 

There are practical steps too, like making sure that all training is effective, accessible and relevant. “Any kind of training or learning development needs to be built around the user's needs; answering the problems they've got, rather than feeling abstract or removed from the work that they're doing,” Beautyman says. 

Encouraging a culture where asking questions, trying alternative approaches, and being innovative, means having leaders that are in a position to cultivate that change, he continues. They need to challenge the status quo and “make it clear to the team that this is how they will as an organisation get better” and to ensure learning is not only appreciated but actioned. 

He refers to the need for clear, strategic direction on the part of senior leaders to invest in strategies where people can learn, discover and embrace digital and data. A key responsibility of the Central Digital and Data Office is helping educate leaders on the importance of this.  In response, the ‘Digital Excellence Programme’ is now launched to 7000 senior civil servants.

“There are colleagues who still believe digital refers to ‘the IT-Crowd people’ in the corner,” Beautyman explains. “There’s still a lot of work to make sure that people right at the top of our organisations understand the importance of investing in digital capabilities - but also working through how it can be implemented in the best possible way. Core to this is culture and learning.”

Rising to the challenge

Anna Wong is a Director in the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat where she leads digital talent development across the Government of Canada. One of the biggest challenges she faces is developing a culture of continuous learning and improvement. “We can’t recruit fast enough the skills we need so we have to upskill from within; but it’s difficult because we still have multiple generations in the workforce – each with their own challenges and values.” 

Anna WongThis is made harder by an ever-changing digital landscape, she explains. “What it is today is not what it is tomorrow. It is constant change and this means, for any organisation, creating the right culture, incentives and institutional support is really hard.” For this reason, Wong says it’s important to understand your organisation’s existing cultural profile before making any changes. 

As much as this is a challenge, Wong also sees it as an “enormous opportunity” to redesign systems and programmes to better engage with employees. She acknowledges the need for governments to look more closely at enabling more tailored learning and development programmes; more so than it has done in the past. “The public sector is behind because we have only started seeing it as a problem in the last few years. As such, we haven’t treated it with the focus it needs.”  

Until now that is. The Government of Canada has just published its first-ever digital talent strategy, which outlines how it will tackle the whole end-to-end employee experience and organisational support; from recruitment through to development and upskilling. 

The strategy focuses on applied learning “as opposed to offering one-off training days,” Wong explains. “We have to ensure people keep learning and honing their craft in their day-to-day role by creating nudges and pushes to enable that. We are trying to move learning out of the classroom and into the work environment by giving people the flexibility and freedom to test out what techniques they’ve learnt.” As an example of this, she points to their internal Cloud Skilling Programme, which allows staff to immediately test what they’ve learnt in their working environment. 

Finding the joy

In many cases, while staff are given plenty of opportunity to develop their skills; it doesn’t always mean they can take full advantage of what’s on offer. “It is important to recognise that many civil servants may feel like they can’t prioritise it or are unable to give it their full attention – perhaps due to rising workloads or looming deadlines,” says Sarah Brooks, Deputy Director Digital Capability & Engagement at Justice Digital. 

Empowering employees to take charge of their own developmentIMG_0176 can alleviate the pressure, Brooks says. “This means making it as easy as possible for professionals to be able to access learning on-demand.  Most importantly, there’s nothing better than leveraging the self-supporting communities that people work in.”

As an example, she says MOJ invests in its workforce with a 10% policy - enabling colleagues to use 10% of their working time to learn new skills and grow within the organisation. “You can decide if you want to do something completely different and be supported in a path to a completely new career within the organisation. This is a really compelling part of our offer, reflecting our commitment to letting people develop their careers here at Justice Digital.”

Levelling up with AI 

On the need to make learning easier and more enjoyable, Beautyman believes this is where AI can help. “There are AI tools being used like Microsoft Co-Pilot, which prompt users to work in new or different ways,” he says. “It can be easy to get lost in the routine of work but having AI prompts can bring learning into the flow of work, and can accelerate on the job skill growth. It can also free up time and energy spent on more transactional tasks, leaving employees free to focus on more creative aspects of their work.”

Like Beautyman, Wong highlights the role that AI can play in creating a more exciting learning environment. She emphasises how Virtual Reality can lead to more immersive, enhanced experiences. It can also allow employees to come together in real-time and to create more collaborative workspaces - from team brainstorming sessions, conferences, large-scale workshops and training classes. 

She highlights the so far “untapped potential” of technology like this in the public sector but notes how transformative it could be to the learning and development process: “Imagine the possibilities if everyone had their own virtual trainer?”

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