A Taste of Our Own Medicine | 2021 VocTech Challenge

In March, Ufi will be publishing its Green Paper which sets out the findings from Ufi’s VocTech Challenge ‘discovery phase’ to explore the question:

How can VocTech improve vocational outcomes for people most impacted by the digital divide and at greatest risk from the long-term impact of the pandemic on access to training and jobs? 

How do we then link those vocational skills to real employment opportunities?

This is the second in a series of blog posts that share Ufi’s reflections on using ‘design thinking’ principles to shape its work programme.

When you set off into the fog, you just have to be brave and trust that you are well prepared for what you will find.

Blog Post by Hilary Stringer, Ufi Consultant, Coach, Facilitator, and Entrepreneur

In 2019, Ufi’s specialist call invited proposals for projects that needed a discovery phase to look more deeply into the challenge of what skills were needed in the 21st century workplace. We invited 13 projects to step out into the unknown and see what the real, lived experience of their users was, to help them define a genuine problem that they could solve.

Some of the projects were familiar with the Discover/Define/Develop/Deliver process that is used in design thinking, but others were more focused initially on their users or learners and hadn’t ever been through this process before. So out of the starting gates the experienced projects set off with their discovery kit bags and stepped into the fog of the unknown. Those who were new to this had a variety of responses – from ‘rabbit in the headlights’ to ‘puzzled’ to ‘why on earth are you asking me to do this?’.

Ufi provided guidance and mentoring for all the projects, and, after a few weeks, we started to see light bulbs going on and people really ‘getting’ what the process could do to uncover unmet needs and what was really driving user behaviours. They were our best moments in the process as once the light was on, they really dived into the experience.

Fast forward two years and Ufi has decided to take on the Discovery process for itself, in designing a series of interventions that may involve grant or ventures funding, but will also involve advocacy, partnership building, and co-creation of solutions with those partners. It was clear that there is a challenge out there for those currently most excluded from education and training, or with limited access to work opportunities, and the pandemic and other economic factors seemed to be making it worse. But did we really know what their lived experience was? Ufi doesn’t fund ‘if we build it they will come’ projects – we want our applicants to have a clear idea of who they will be helping - so we needed to take that approach ourselves in designing what we did next.

So many questions then arise. Who do we talk to? How do we find out what’s really going on? What evidence can we collect through our current projects? How do we ask questions we’ve never asked before? And all of them have to be done with a completely open mind, and with open questions, so that we don’t inadvertently just lead conversations back into spaces we’re comfortable in.

It’s a huge leap to run a project that has no definition, no clear outcomes, and no defined milestones. We had a few ‘rabbit in the headlights’ moments before we kicked-off the conversations with our communities. When you set off into the fog, you just have to be brave and trust that you are well prepared for what you will find.

And what we have found has been fascinating. We already knew from our VocTech Now projects that there were some deep and systemic issues for disadvantaged learners, but this process has added finesse to our understanding of why some of those occur. We suspected that our colleagues teaching on the front line in the pandemic had been having very difficult experiences, but hearing about them first hand and with no filter has been eye-opening. We actively engage with employers, but this time we got some fascinating insights into how those at the cutting edge of workplace training are thinking. We work closely with VocTech developers and know how hard it can be to run a small, innovative business, but we now have more ideas of what support they would benefit from. And we rely heavily on our wider team of learning design experts to keep advancing the effectiveness of VocTech - but we’d never asked them about some of the barriers they face in getting good learning out there.

For me, one of the highlights has been the response of the participants in our consultations. They have come to share their experiences with enthusiasm and have trusted us with their stories. Several have thanked us for listening and letting them tell those stories for the first time.

Our job now is to bring all of that together to define a Challenge that Ufi is uniquely well placed to deliver, alongside our partners, and advocate for change where there are deeper causes that are outside our mission. Whatever the outcome, we have learned a lot on this discovery journey, about our community, and about ourselves.

Read the next blog post in this series: A Fundamental Disconnect.

2021 VocTech Challenge

Read more from this series of blog posts that share Ufi’s reflections on using ‘design thinking’ principles to shape its work programme.

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