Blog Post

Future proofing settlement work -a sector digital competency framework

By: Marco Campana
March 15, 2022

When we’re looking at future proofing settlement work, I like to think about it as a bit of an iceberg. There is a great deal below the surface that has to be in place before what we see above the surface is effective. The future of settlement work is about much more than technology but I want to focus this iceberg conversation on technology since that’s what we’re focused on here. 

And, as you’ll see, what’s below the surface isn’t just about building digital competencies, but is much broader than that.

Future proofing settlement work -a sector digital competency framework - image of iceberg with various titles

Prefer to read than watch? Here's a transcript of my presentation: Future proofing settlement work - an Immigrant & Refugee-Serving Sector Digital Competency Framework

When we’re looking at future proofing settlement work, I like to think about it as a bit of an iceberg. There is a great deal below the surface that has to be in place before what we see above the surface is effective. The future of settlement work is about much more than technology but I want to focus this iceberg conversation on technology since that’s what we’re focused on here.

And, as you’ll see, what’s below the surface isn’t just about building digital competencies, but is much broader than that.

Let’s start with framing the issue - future of settlement work. A broad framing of the issue helps to identify the surprises that will disrupt the system. The way you frame the problem may change as you learn more about the multiple pathways through which drivers could impact the system. But we start with a broad idea of the challenge or goal.

The future of your job, the frontline worker’s job, comes up a lot in this conversation. Mainly as a point of anxiety. A fear of being replaced by technology. I don’t think your job is at risk. It is evolving. But you are more important than ever before. And, as we look to the future, we can and should drive the change that is happening and ensure it aligns with our sector's core values, as well as the type of work we want to be doing.

We've been talking about frontline competencies as a sector for many, many years. In 2019, some folks did some research and looked at the big picture competencies of settlement practitioners. The report found that the work of settlement counsellors goes beyond just providing direct services to Newcomers to include building capacity in communities that welcome newcomers. The role of settlement counsellors has two fundamental parts, each based on capacity-building:

1. empowering newcomers

2. empowering destination communities

The emerging aspect of the role of settlement counsellors is focused on building capacity in the existing community to be inclusive of newcomers. This involves advocating to overcome biases and systemic barriers that prevent immigrants from participating in society and in creating environments based on “unity in diversity.”

The eight critical competencies to help settlement counsellors be successful include the ability to:

1. Discern the strengths and identify the needs of newcomers

2. Assist newcomers to navigate social and economic systems

3. Help newcomers gain understanding of Canadian society and culture, and nurture a sense of belonging

4. Advocate for the well-being of newcomers

5. Contribute to building environments of unity in diversity

6. Uphold integrity

7. Promote learning

8. Foster initiative

As we’ll see as we move through the iceberg, these skills also need to be considered within a digital literacy and competency framework.

Tamarack’s Community Community Change models shows us that Community Innovation is just one part of the puzzle. It’s about systems thinking, new forms of leadership, engaging our communities, or clients, in our systems change, identifying and amplifying what works, and building on it to create new approaches.

A community change or community development model is really part of the foundation of our sector’s work. We don’t just provide transactional services for Newcomers, but work to create inclusion, welcoming communities, and advocate for these things in all aspects of our work, whether in employment, health, housing, education, etc.

And part of that is how we frame innovation. You see here in this model it’s framed as Community Innovation. That’s an important distinction and definition. While I’m not an expert on innovation I want to spend a few minutes talking about innovation, because it’s what I’m focused on today and I want you to hear where I ground myself in definitions and the idea of innovation.

These days we hear a lot about disruptive innovation. But I don’t think disruptive innovation is our way. Instead, let’s think about constructive innovation. I want to read you this definition and distinction between disruptive and constructive innovation:

"...disruption is an inevitable outcome of innovation and that we need innovation to adhere to changing markets and consumer needs. HOWEVER, once 'disruptive innovation' becomes the core goal of platforms, industries and organisations, it tends to ignore and dismantle existing ecosystems with minimal regard to the outcome. Basically, it becomes an innovation tantrum masquerading as a process, harming the most vulnerable individuals and societies....

Disruption works when you have something to break. With all the broken industries and lives, perhaps it is time to embrace a 'constructive innovation' attitude. Let’s talk more about organic growth, ways to evolve industries and platforms in a more realistic way. It is time to solve hard problems, that benefits and is created by the many and not the few. I want a future where investors and creators use the term 'Return On Investment' beyond monetary value but with a societal ROI."

Can we help make systems in need better rather than dismantle them further or profit from their failure?

'Move fast and break things' is not always the solution for hard problems. This is not to say we should not be experimental. It's great in a small, controlled environment, but is not always the best way to handle complex situations and ecosystems.

Experts are people that actually have experience in a specific field. Learn and listen to them first. Put a bit more effort in HELPING AND SUPPORTING existing systems and knowledge hubs. Perhaps they are broken but sometimes fixing is better than dismantling them altogether.”

Ultimately, our innovation is what some call Community Innovation.

Innovation is not just a destination, but a process. But not a linear process. It requires us to have the space, time, and resources to learn, build capacity, evaluate, change, test, etc.

And Community Innovation is inclusive, collaborative, and builds on our resources and assets. It doesn’t reject or dismiss us as not good enough, which disruptive innovation tends to.

Spiral of power - We’re ultimately talking about community innovation. Perhaps you’ve heard the line “Nothing for us without us.” We start with the people we serve. Innovation can’t happen without the people it impacts. The spiral of power reminds us of this, and ensures that we innovate within an anti-oppression framework.

Whenever we work towards creating accessible, flexible and more choices for newcomers to access the services that they need, newcomers must be at the center of our solutions, our innovations and iterations. This isn't new. When I started in the sector, this is what I was taught from a popular education perspective of how to start creating anything new. Start with newcomers and communities. This the spiral model of popular education and participatory community engagement. Everything we did centered on the newcomer, or it wasn't done. So as you can see, here, we start with the experience and the knowledge of the participants, we identify patterns, and we build from there. Ultimately, we make sure that that we we are iterating and changing as we go and from what we're learning. And through it all, as you see in the middle we are challenging power relations, we are challenging the issues of of equity and inclusion, disconnect and divides in our society.

Today, innovation has been commodified and professionalized. We hear it called user experience, human centred labs, service design, social innovation, social R&D, etc. Language is used to exclude and create power structures, where you’re not innovative if you don’t use the right lingo. When, we’re really talking about the same things. Centring newcomers in our work. When we get past the lingo, we discover that we might actually be talking about addressing Social justice, using Popular education and Community engagement techniques to address power, inequity, and oppression.

Nethope, an organization that supports international humanitarian organizations in their digital transformation has created a model for the digital nonprofit that looks at six core areas, people, processes, technology, data, investment, and readiness. If we look at their categories, in our context, some specifics emerge where we are and should be focusing.

This is my half baked version of their model, applied to our sector. We can start to see what our priorities might be. So at the core, at the centre, is newcomer centric data, creating a seamless newcomer settlement experience journey. I had called this client in a previous version, but in a conversation realized how limiting that is for our thinking. We need to be centring Newcomers, whether they access our services, or not, in our plans. When we think about people, we're talking about professional development in our context, building a competencies framework for our work, including knowledge mobilization and transfer. When we're looking at process, we're talking about digital, and data maturity and risk frameworks. Frameworks we can not only build on but learn from, borrow, customize and implement in our sector. Technology, in our case, needs to be tempered with digital inclusion and equity. This needs to align with our sector values of access, anti oppression and inclusion. When we're thinking about readiness, this is where we're talking about those baselines in hybrid service delivery, where we have a common minimum standard or floor of infrastructure and competencies that no agency and no individual should fall below. We can certainly exceed those baselines, and should strive to, but at their core, we all should have access to build those baselines. When it comes to investment, I like to use what Allen Broadbent from the Maytree foundation called the three I’s of immigrant integration: intentionality, instruments and investments. We need to be strategic, we need to be intentional about what we're doing. We need to have the right instruments, tactics, or technologies in order to to address what we’re being intentional about. And we need investments in those instruments and in that strategy in order to make it happen. Data is key to all of that. In this model, I'm putting it at the center, labelled as Newcomer. It's really being newcomer centric, fully understanding newcomers and communities, in order to create that seamless newcomer settlement journey. Understanding newcomers makes the technology and service intervention decisions much easier.

NetHope’s Digital Skills Framework is an organized way to guide you with what to know, learn, and do in order to better communicate, collaborate, solve complex problems, advocate and create new ways of doing good in a world where digital is abundant.

The Digital Skills Framework is based on research into technology trends, existing frameworks, and digital skills needed for success, both now and in the future.

Historically, skills frameworks have been based around 5 common themes: Information and Digital Literacy, Communication and Collaboration, Problem-Solving, Safety, Creativity and Innovation. These existing frameworks have helped guide skills training, and have been used in businesses, and education for well over a decade.

But newer technology and trends, such as advancement in cloud technology, blockchain, AI and Machine Learning, as well as IoT need to be incorporated into the frameworks to fully identify the skills needed for employees and organizations to be successful now and in the future.

  • Information and Digital Literacy was helpful in the first 20 years of computer technology as technology became ubiquitious. But there needs to be a deeper understanding of technology, a proficiency in data use, and the ability to follow technology trends and apply those trends to an organization. These skills lead to a new Technical Literacy , which forms the foundation for all the other skills in the framework.
  • Communication and Collaboration is still an important part of the new framework. However, now people within an organization need to participate in digital teams, share projects, tasks, calendars, tools & media. They need to work effectively across cultural, social and language barriers, while learning to share openly across networks as appropriate. This changes the skill to one of Highly Adaptive Collaboration .
  • Problem-Solving is the backbone of all employee work. Technology allows individuals to use data in figuring out answers to problems. It also means problems get more complicated with the increase in information. Employees will need to solve increasingly complex problems using research, analytics, rapid prototyping and feedback. They will have to pivot to incorporate environmental changes and organizations will need to continually build an agile environment to achieve the best solution. This skill evolves to one of Complex Problem-Solving .
  • Safety was originally geared towards keeping your private information safe, while ensuring the safety of other peoples’ personal information. With the proliferation of so many online sites – both social sites and shared sites, it is critical that employees understand their own digital footprint. In the nonprofit sector, work with vulnerable populations means safety and security of those individuals is a moral imperative. They also need to identify secure sites, as well as the benefits and risks of giving information across devices and different sites thru software. Developing a positive online identity, and building a digital reputation, while being safe leads to a skill around Digital Responsibility .
  • Creativity & Innovation remains a skill but grows to include the ability to generate new ideas or revise original ones with divergent thinking or by drawing connections thru categorization, prioritization or other segmentation. This skill uses the information available thru technology and data to make better formed decisions and allows people from different places to participate in the creative process. Organizations can then take well-formulated risks on new ideas to generate greater impact. Creativity & Innovation remains a pillar in the framework.
  • Entrepreneurial Spirit is an important part of a digital skill set. It involves a fail-fast attitude, and a feeling of ownership. Employees can look at old problems or processes with new eyes. They challenge old ways of working and are open, co-creators with a laser focus on users and customers, and an agile way of working within an organization.

eSkills, a digital literacy project for Newcomers provides a deeper dive into the areas of Technical Literacy and Digital Responsibility. While created for Newcomers, this model is useful for us as workers too.

Their model is consistent with broader views of digital literacy that encompass the ideas of digital fluency, digital citizenship, and digital equity. For example, Digital literacy is can be considered an understanding of how to use the tools; digital fluency is the ability to create something new with those tools… In learning a foreign language, a literate person can read, speak, and listen for understanding in the new language. A fluent person can create something in the language: a story, a poem, a play, or a conversation.

Digital literacy has been described by UNESCO as “the ability to define, access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship. It includes competencies that are variously referred to as computer literacy, ICT literacy, information literacy and media literacy." It entails the “ability to identify and use technology confidently, creatively and critically to meet the demands and challenges of living, learning and working in a digital society.”

You can see those elements in the eSkills model. It’s aspirational, but achievable, and something all our organizations should be striving for.

When you emerge above the surface, we start to see the visible uses of technology in our sector. I’ve organized these into 3 areas: sector focused, Newcomer focused, and community focused

Sector focused means looking at how we collaborate, share knowledge, and are active in our communities of practice. Information-sharing, collaboration, knowledge mobilization, professional development all take time. Everyone needs a focused approach to innovation. It takes time. But we can do better as a sector to share what’s working, what we’re learning, how we’re using technology, how we’re planning for the future, etc.

Being newcomer focused means being newcomer-centric in our work. We tend to focus on what works for us and what our funding guidelines are. The rhetoric and aspiration of a completely client centric service exists in the sector, but there are challenges. What makes the most sense and creates the best experience for newcomers tends to be done at the service and organizational level.

We don’t end up with shared resources related to evaluating the newcomer journey, their experience in settlement, our place in it, and where we might have greater impact. Capacity in this area is fragmented, at best. It isn’t systemic.

The immigration journey, information and system navigation is overwhelming for newcomers. We know this.

Newcomers may not know what they don’t know. We know earlier interventions can make a difference in someone’s successful settlement and integration. It’s why pre-arrival services exist, right? Even when offered beneficial services or programs, people often don’t take advantage of them. Clients don’t hear about the services, or don’t think they need them. We know this is a challenge both with pre-arrival and in-Canada services.

If we don’t reach people with timely information:

  • Missed opportunity.
  • Potentially longer timelines for settlement.
  • Frustration and misinformation.

What we need to start talking about is how our entire service system puts newcomers in the centre and builds from there. Not just at the individual organizational or service level, but at a systems level. Collaborating together to put newcomers at the centre of our services and efforts is essential to better service experience and therefore better settlement and inclusion experience for newcomers.

Community focused takes us back to that Tamarack Model of Community Change.

In all three you’ll see common line - Seek > Sense > Share. This comes from Harold Jarche, a Canadian consultant who works with individuals, organisations, and governments to improve collaboration, knowledge sharing and sense-making.

Seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date. Building a network of colleagues is helpful in this regard. It not only allows us to “pull” information, but also have it “pushed” to us by trusted sources. Good curators are valued members of knowledge networks.

Sensing is how we personalize information and use it. Sensing includes reflection and putting into practice what we have learned. Often it requires experimentation, as we learn best by doing. In our case, this is also sense-making for Newcomers, helping them navigate systems around them, be they community or digital.

Sharing includes exchanging resources, ideas, and experiences with our networks as well as collaborating with our colleagues. It also means how we share information with Newcomers to help them on their settlement journey.

IRCC’s future vision sits a bit above and below the surface because we know a bit about it and hear about it in some settings, but it is not completely transparent or known to everyone in the sector. In particular, we don’t know all the details. But, we know that IRCC is on board when it comes to a future vision of the sector providing hybrid or blended service delivery. For once their vision aligns with the research, sector experience, and recommendations made to them. That feels like progress.

As you see here, IRCC has a vision for clients, service provider organizations, or SPOs, and themselves:

Clients are able to access high quality settlement services online and can opt to complement these with in person offerings.

Service providers continue their digital transformation, while providing tailored in person services to clients who need additional support.

IRCC’s Settlement Program provides a suite of digital settlement services that improve client outcomes and Program effectiveness. Hopefully this includes the Language and other IRCC programs as well. It’s important for consistency across the sector.

Over the next 2 years they have committed to continuing to build an evidence base of what works, and have identified specific areas where the sector is looking for guidance - cybersecurity, privacy, digital literacy, and are building digital guidelines and standards that will be part of the next call for proposals in 2024. A National Steering Committee on Technology is being created that will guide the sector and collaborate with IRCC to make this vision practical and fundable. The next big CFP is in two years. We’ll know then what direction the digital settlement agency is heading in, and who will lead the sector.

As we ponder all of this, the question for us is what do you need to feel competent and comfortable to provide digital services to newcomers?

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