What is digital capability?

It’s now week five of my working for Auckland Museum and I’ve spent much of that time talking to people around the Museum and researching digital capability in the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector. My first big task is to assess digital capability via a quantitative (that’s a survey) and qualitative (that’s talking to more people) methodology. So that we know what specific areas we need to target to increase said capability.

But the first place to start with this is to articulate what digital capability actually is. It’s by no means straight forward. Chicken and egg is a fitting description. ‘Digital’ means different things to different people. Some will say that it’s digital apps, tools, technology. Others will say it’s a different way of interacting with audiences.

So how do you measure something that people define differently?

I’ve started with some models for the effective implementation of people initiatives and learning and have used them to focus my initial, informal, discussions. These conversations have given me a bit more context to the museum and all the overlapping and moving parts that have an impact on digital capability, I’m then overlaying these insights with the research into digital capability (including some very useful resources from the Education sector) to frame my research/survey questions. I’m hoping this will give me a better picture of what digital capability actually is, how we measure it and the road map to enhance it.

There are two main models that are informing my thinking around digital capability. The first is probably the most pressing in my consciousness. It’s something I’ve used for years, heavily influenced by doing my Masters thesis with Peter Boxall (Professor of HRM at Auckland University), and seeing the implications of these three elements play out in the workplace time and time again. The model is the Ability, Motivation, Opportunity framework.

  • Ability is the skills and capabilities people need to complete tasks. In a digital sense, this is the knowing how to use the technology.
  • Motivation is the ‘what’s in it for me’. It doesn’t need to be transactional though. Simply, the reason we get out of bed in the morning is intrinsically connected to what you’re asking people to do, or change.
  • Opportunity refers to resources and scope to use technology. For example, the technology works like it’s supposed to, we’re allowed to use it (i.e. Twitter isn’t blocked), and we’ve got adequate information about what you can and can’t do – giving us the freedom to make adult decisions.


All three of these factors are a tripod. If one is missing then the others are going to fall down. You can’t tell people what to do (funny that!). You can train them until the cows come home, but if their hearts (their motivation) are not in it then they’re not going to do anything differently. Likewise, if you teach people how to use Twitter but there is no clear message about what the organisation voice is vs. the individual’s voice then people are going to be uncertain about using that tool – limiting their opportunity to participate.

If you’ve read my book you may have picked up on my belief that these three factors are even more fundamental when looking at the uptake of technology and adapting to increasing change. It’s complex, uncertain and, because it’s harder to see, measure, and ‘control’ outcomes, you’re much more reliant on individual motivation.

The second model I’m layering in here is the 70:20:10 framework made popular by Charles Jennings. This is the philosophy that 70% of learning should come through on the job experience, 20% through learning through others and 10% through structured courses and programmes. There has been some debate about the relevance of this model in recent years. But, I believe that’s because those 70% and 20% elements sit outside the realm of traditional instructional design and more in the sphere of organisational learning capability, workplace design and work systems. Practices that are impacted by other areas of the organisation including, from my observations over the years, ICT, Operations, and Marketing (not exclusively though). These are areas where the connection to learning and development strategy development and execution are not traditionally that strong.


There is a risk with the development of digital capability that the focus sits on that workshop space. ‘Let’s train people how to use digital tools and that will fix the challenges that we have’. We risk unbalancing the tripod and causing more frustration as people have the skills to use technology but not the capacity to do so. That development of skills  should be part of digital capability development but only one piece in a bigger jigsaw puzzle.

The rest doesn’t just happen on its own though, and the development of this ‘culture’ requires a mix of different interventions with different areas of the organisation. Yes, some of them workshop based but with the specific intentions, and embedded design, to impact past the workshop environment. These initiatives include:

  • The evolution of work practices that enable the flexibility to be innovative, creative and responsive to changing environmental demands. Think Design Thinking, Agile, and Lean. Re-thinking the way we run meetings and manage projects.
  • Tools and systems that support communication across the organisation. How does the Intranet, document storage and sharing system, and chat platforms intersect and support each other to achieve an overall goal of collaboration and information management, within and across teams.
  • Leadership development that supports the transition from privacy to transparency, planning to experimentation, controlling to empowering and hierarchies to networks. As well as the necessarily mindfulness/wellness techniques needed to survive and thrive in a fast changing and hyper-connected world. This has flow on implications for who we hire and how we hire them.
  • A digital vision that clearly articulates the expectations placed on people to be digital. Translating the overall organisation strategy into ‘what does this mean for the way we work together and learn?’ Clearing up confusion about what ‘digital thinking’ means and setting the expectation for the culture ‘the way we do around here’. Delving deeper also means helping people make the connection between ‘me’, ‘my team’ and ‘the organisation’.

Digital cap

In my thinking, and discussions, about digital, and indeed digital thinking, I keep revisiting the distinction between modernisation and transformation I borrow from my friend Heather, a teacher in a progressive school in East Auckland. Without sounding like a stuck record, modernisation is doing the same way we’ve always done things but with whiz bang features. Tranformation is looking at fundamentally changing the way we do things. Let me give you some examples:

  • In the school sector, this means teachers moving from the holders of knowledge standing at the front of the classroom, imparting information to kids sitting in rows taking down notes, to being facilitators, coaches and mentors as kids search out information themselves, using technology, and discuss it with their peers.
  • In retail, this means moving from the marketing message being the selling point for goods and services, to consumers telling their own stories about their purchases and people making decisions based on recommendations of people they know, or are connected to (this is why Instagram is diabolical for my credit card!).


I’m new to museology so I don’t feel comfortable commenting on this in respect to how the museum interacts with its audience. I do see the opportunities for internal practice though. Are we using digital technology to do the same thing we’ve always done but with new gadgets? Or do we want to create greater agility, innovation, creativity, openness, transparency? If the answer to this is yes, then there are implications for our leaders, systems, work practices and communication of vision (the stuff I mentioned above). Future Museum is pointing us in this direction, and I believe that our internal culture should be a mirror of what we project externally.

So, what does this mean for the capability assessment that I’m developing? Well I seem to have pullled together the ICT capability element of it quite easily (I found some great questions online). But I still need to explore this ‘digital thinking culture’ (for want of better words) that make up digital capability. I’m still working on something that captures that crucial synergy between training and application.

And I’m now faced with the challenge of simultaneously birthing the egg and growing the chicken at the same time as I start to plan how we’re going to define, lead and develop digital capability in an environment where we don’t have a clear idea what it is. It sounds like some word of weird sociological and biological experiment and it is. But that seems to be the thing with digital anyway, it’s all new ground. We’re all just trying to work out what we’re doing. And that’s a mind-set in itself isn’t it?

This thinking is by no means complete but, hopefully, by sharing, I can further develop the finesse of my delivery. I’d love to know what you think about this.

4 thoughts on “What is digital capability?

  1. Pingback: What is digital thinking? | Learning to Fly

  2. Zarah

    I really like the way you have articulated your thoughts on this, really does come together nicely when you put it in this context. I’m currently working on a paper about digital capability and I would love to hear the outcome of your research.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s