Becoming digital masters to beat cancer sooner

First published on Cancer Research UK Digital Team blog on 12 January 2017

At Cancer Research UK our goal is that by 2034, 3 in 4 people diagnosed with cancer will survive. That’s rightly ambitious and we need to keep moving forwards to make sure we get there. We need to become a more digital organisation to keep pace.

It sounds good in theory. We hear that we’re supposed to be ‘more digital’ all the time. Organisations can’t keep doing things the way they’ve always done them. Or they risk being ‘disrupted’. Left behind, eating the dust of an army of post-it wielding hipsters.

But for people who don’t work in digital every day we know this can all feel a bit abstract. That’s our priority as a Learning and Development function within the digital team. How do we help people understand what ‘being more digital’ is? And how do we support them to get there?

Digital mindset and skills

We describe ‘being digital’ as a combination of mindset and skills. Mindset-wise it’s about making sure you really understand your audience and prioritise their experience. It’s about testing and learning. Embracing failure, and continuously improving whatever it is that you’re working on. And it’s about collaborating. Avoiding unnecessary hierarchy and bureaucracy in order to get work done quickly.

And the skills? Being able to write great web content that comes up top in a Google search. Being able to track and analyse the performance of web pages. Continuously improving pages to ensure a great experience for users. Understanding social and other digital marketing channels. And managing work in an ‘agile’ way and applying ‘lean’ principles to reduce waste and be as productive as possible.

Learning by doing

So how do we work with teams so that they can do all these things?

At the moment, the Learning and Development world is buzzing with ideas about modern workplace learning. Jane Hart and others are leading a shift away from the traditional training course, where ‘learning’ is separate from work.

Nowadays if I wanted to find out how to do something outside of work I’d Google or YouTube it to find out how. Or I’d ask someone who knows more than me. I wouldn’t book onto a training course in a month’s time.

We take this kind of approach to digital upskilling. We see work and learning as one and the same thing.

As a wider digital team, we no longer do the digital stuff for other teams. Through our ‘Hub and Spoke’ model, we (the digital hub) work in partnership with teams (in what we call spokes) to deliver a digital outcome. Like increase the team’s digital presence or increase the engagement of people who visit their pages. And just as importantly, to help the team adopt a digital mindset and develop their digital skills.

We don’t send people on a one-size-fits-all training programme to make them better at digital things. Instead we support teams to learn as they work towards their spoke goal.

At the start of a spoke, teams assess their current skills and set some learning objectives with a digital team member (a Proposition Manager) who acts as their learning guide throughout. We’ve created a digital skills self-assessment to help them do this. We can share this with you if you’re interested.

They then get started on the digital work they’ve come together to deliver. Working with the Proposition Manager to build their understanding of how to approach a piece of work in a digital way.

The team can ask questions as they go, and get guidance and advice from digital experts in our team. When relevant they can go to focused training sessions and have access to the helpful just-in-time resources.

So at the end of a spoke, a previously ‘non-digital’ business team can test new ideas from their audience’s point of view, maintain their web page and create great online experiences. And they can do all this independently, needing less and less support from the digital team.

For example: Our Annual Review team

A spoke was set up to make sure we have outstanding content on the Annual Review pages of our website.

Oli Welch, a Proposition Manager, guided the team through this journey. So that they could keep improving their pages in future, once the spoke ended.

Skills assessment

Firstly, Oli needed to establish the team’s starting point. In this case they were all quite new to digital but were really keen to learn. Ideal!

Learning to use some analytics and collaborative tools

Next the team needed to learn how supporters were using the Annual Review pages. Oli showed them how to use Google Analytics and Crazy Egg. Google Analytics let them track some key statistics about their users and Crazy Egg allowed them to see visually how people engage with their website. These tools gave them a much better idea of how people interacted with their pages.

The team practised with the tools until they were able to use them confidently on their own.

Oli also introduced the team to tools like Trello, a platform for managing workload in an agile way, to share their work. The team picked them up quickly and have continued to use them since.

A lightbulb moment

Oli introduced the team to the concept of User Experience (UX). They went along to our testing lab at City University, to observe real people engaging with their existing pages. They watched as members of the public skimmed through pages they’d expected them to read in detail and didn’t even open the pdfs they’d painstakingly put together! It really challenged their preconceptions about how people interacted with their content and the difference between what works in print and what works online.

Reflecting and Consolidating

All of the work so far allowed the team to put together a list of things that were wrong with the existing pages and things that were working well. They could begin creating new content.

But before ploughing on, Oli held a couple of washup sessions with the team. He reminded them of everything they’d learned. And gave them a handy document explaining who to ask in digital for help with different tasks.

Learning from experts

Next came workshops with our Content and SEO leads, Chris Flood and Nancy Scott. They gave some tips for creating a new user journey and ideas for writing great web content. The team now keep these in mind when they produce new content.

Pressing the right buttons

To put the new pages on the website, the team needed to know how to use our content management system (CMS), Drupal. Becca Sharplin-Hughes, one of our Digital Producers built a page as an example, showing them the steps she took to do it. Then the team were able, with Becca’s support, to create their own pages. With more practice, they’ve grown in confidence and can now edit their pages by themselves.

From zero to digital

So through a mixture of learning by doing, speaking to experts, and training, the team grew to adopt a digital mindset and developed the skills to take control of their digital destiny.

We’re seeing some exciting progress working with teams across CRUK in this way. Helping them to deliver great digital experiences and supporting them to become more digital in the process.

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Ed Willis

Ed is the Digital Training and Comms Manager at Cancer Research UK. Blog: CR UK Digital Team

One thought on “Becoming digital masters to beat cancer sooner

  1. Phil

    Thanks Ed, really useful insight into how you sought to win the hearts as well as the minds of “non-digital” staff.

    In my own experience at a Big 4 professional services firm where I led the Learning Technology team within the wider L&D team, winning the hearts was the biggest thing (similar I think to the “mindset” you describe). One lesson I learned when interacting with non-digital L&D staff was that you had to balance the hand-holding whilst challenging them to become less reliant on my central team over time. Many of the non-digital L&D staff owned existing face to face programmes and content that were “running just fine thank you very much” and resisted the firm-wide push to increase digitalisation. In supporting them and coaching them, my team had to develop a sense of empathy as to the risks that digitalisation brought, rather than imposing it on them. And respecting them for the expert professionals they were, rather than getting frustrated with them because they didn’t immediately focus on the “obvious” benefits. I think these are the people skills that many digital teams need to focus on, though it seems like your team has gone a long way to doing just that.


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