How to recognise the signs of digital transformation happening in your charity. How to help those changes continue.

I am yet to see an organisation that has completed a ‘digital transformation’. 

“Why?” you ask. Because ‘digital transformation’ is not something that is static or finished. It is a range of ever-developing and adapting processes which aim to adjust an organisation’s thinking and the ways it delivers its services. The Co-op Digital Team presents a useful definition (which started with the Government Digital Service): ‘Applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.’

As the practice of digital, and its role within organisations, continues to develop, we must all continue to adapt with it. There are some signals of ‘digital transformation’ that can be observed, and these observations may help you and your organisation develop and improve the ways in which you approach being more ‘digital’. 

During my time working in digital roles across the UK charity space, I’ve noticed a number of shifts in attitudes and changes in behaviour which occur as an organisation seeks to increase and improve its digital ways of working. Typically speaking, in these organisations the digital team (or, in practice, the people tasked with maintaining the content on the website) move from delivering a service for teams across the organisation, to strategically planning digital delivery.

In this situation, their expertise in digital tools and ways of working become more valued, and there is a focus on how it can support wider organisational goals. This shift from traditional web-based digital roles towards more holistic, digital-focused ways of thinking is a significant challenge for many organisations and can often result in a drastic adjustment to the structures of teams, job roles and responsibilities. 

But, what does that change look like? And how does the work to support charities on their digital journey need to shift and adapt?

In a conversation on Twitter, Roger Swannell, (Product Manager at The Princes Trust), clearly demonstrated the difference between service teams and strategic teams, and the necessary change that accompanies it. Here is a table which illustrates Swannell’s point, comparing a digital team that is delivering a service to other teams, with one that is strategically planning digital delivery. 

Measuring success

Service: Success is judged on single metrics

Strategy: The team understands the impact of multiple data types

Making decisions

Service: Decisions are made on gut feeling and instinct

Strategy: Decisions are guided by testing and research

Supporting and encouraging

Service: Success is judged on whether the user completed a single action (click a link, or reply to an email)

Strategy: Success is judged on completion of an outcome (finding support for their ill parent, or making a benefits claim)

Creating and developing digital tools

Service: The digital team works for people (conceiving an idea and building on it in solitude)

Strategy: The digital team works with people (discovering a problem, working with people who have that problem, and creating a solution together)

So, what are the changes in behaviour that signal the start of this digital transformation in our organisations? 

  • A shift in the way success is measured
  • Being comfortable looking to others for inspiration, specialist expertise, and guidance
  • Change in what is typically understood as ‘digital’ roles
  • Curiosity in ‘digital’ grows across the organisation
  • Adaptation of existing structures to meet new digital ways of working

A shift in the way success is measured

When I started my first digital role I was fascinated with data and measurement, principally as a way to chart the growth of social media channels (and reinforce my professional value in doing so). The surges of joy and confidence I felt seeing a continued uptick on various charts and graphs became, in many ways, addictive. As with all highs, then came the plateau, and with it the challenge for me to understand what these measurements actually meant, and how I could learn from what they were telling me.

Recently, I have heard many conversations (and I’ve been involved in a few) where people have shared concerns about the effect on analytics performance after installing compliant cookie policies, which only tracks visits from people who have explicitly agreed. Many have forgotten that, on its own, the number of visitors to a website isn't a good indicator of the quality of activity. An organisation which shifts the way it measures activity from focusing on single metrics to looking at the overall effect of many understands the indicators of quality they are looking for and how best to act in response to them. Additionally, organisations with a mature understanding of digital practices are more likely to make data-driven decisions, planning for the data they collect, understanding what can be learnt, and taking action driven by the results. This is a positive shift in behaviour towards digital transformation. It shouldn’t be an approach that only exists in teams maintaining digital products (e.g. websites) but, rather, one which exists across the organisation.

Being comfortable looking to others for inspiration, specialist expertise, and guidance

I firmly believe that as a sector we are on a shared journey. Some organisations have more experience than others, but wherever we may be on our own digital journeys, we all have advice and experience we can share. I was inspired to write this article by Alex Holden (Director of Communications at Target Ovarian Cancer), and something she said many years ago when I first worked with her. Referring to the communications team as a whole she said, “We mustn’t forget the strategic expertise we offer to the organisation. We are not a service delivery team, we are a strategic function.” I do paraphrase, however this statement is one of a few that have held strong and inspired my career. What also interested me was the approach to digital they as an organisation have taken. 

On discussing the very beginnings of their digital journey, Alex said: 

“We couldn’t be experts in everything. So, we started by recruiting generalist skills for the in-house role, and supported them with a fantastic Digital Advisory Panel – approaching key people in each of the areas we knew we needed more specialist knowledge.”

There are many free and ‘pay-what-you-can’ ways to find ideas and inspiration, gain specialist knowledge, and to speak to others on similar digital journeys. This list is by no means exhaustive: 

Changing what is typically understood as ‘digital’ roles 

It was when I was working at Target Ovarian Cancer that I first struck upon the notion that digital change, or transformation, occurs at the point where the understanding of the digital function shifts. We are no longer in an age where digital and real life, or online and offline, can be separated. As Janet Hughes (then Director of Major Projects at the Department for Education) describes, “digital today is everything, not just websites”.

This is not just as a result of national lockdowns experienced over the past year (Janet’s talk mentioned above was delivered in 2019), but it’s part of a consistent move in behaviour in recent decades. 

We are, as a sector, far from changing our understanding of digital roles. From my own experiences, I recognise that the sector still views ‘digital’ mostly as an extension or add-on to more traditional roles and activities. This needs to change if organisations are to fully commit to digital transformations and reap the benefits offered by embedding digital practices. As the sector continues to develop its responses to these digital changes, there has been a rise of roles with a digital prefix (e.g. Digital Fundraising, Digital Communications) which does suggest that we are beginning to understand the importance of digital working methods. But, there is plenty more to be done. The next step is to shift our understanding of the digital function. It’s not just focused on the technology used. It’s about creating the necessary tools so that all staff can meet their objectives. We must look at digital functions within more traditional teams (Communications, Fundraising, Campaigning, etc.), not as an addition or as separate function to the services offered, but as essential and necessary to the way that everyone works.

Curiosity in ‘digital’ grows across the organisation

In many organisations, we see enthusiasm grow as they progress on their digital journey. The curiosity and possibilities becomes infectious, spreading across teams, and structures. This is often, initially, driven by the progress of more junior members who tend to work in social media management or digital officer roles.  Because of this, we are seeing a burgeoning group of digital leaders,  questioning the status quo and guiding the way with action and digital change. This should be welcomed and nurtured.  How we empower these people to continue asking questions, and support them to take risks and explore, is key to our progress with digital as a sector. Without the right kinds of support and empowerment, curiosity can easily turn to indifference and resistance.

Empowerment has to come from the highest levels. For digital ways of working to be truly embedded within an organisation, the trustees and senior leadership team must come on the journey too. Not necessarily to do the day-to-day work, but to empower and support staff to enact on those digital changes. Digital comes with its own manageable risks. For the leadership team, the focus should be on identifying what these risks might be and what needs to be done to manage them.

Adapting structures and governance

When we start to think of digital as a new ways of working, we must shed ourselves of the structures of the past. I recognise this can be a hugely daunting challenge for any organisation, and especially for charities whose structures and governance are regulated by law and the legal frameworks established when they were first founded.

I asked Alex what she would wish for if she had a magic wand. Her answer will resonate with many in digital leadership roles: “I’d wish to start again and redesign the entire organisation – or the entire healthcare system - with digital fully integrated from the bottom up.”

One significant issue is the need for a shift in funding models.

I cannot ignore that funding is often the biggest barrier towards digital change. Improving digital ways of working, however, must also include an inspection of the ways that digital projects are both conceived and funded, both in business-as-usual internal budgets, and by grant-giving bodies (some, such as The National Lottery Community Fund, are working towards improving support with the addition of tailored packages). All too often, digital budgets (whether from grant-giving bodies or agreed from core funds) don’t include what I call ‘business as usual’ activities such as ongoing running, upgrades and improvements, or the staff needed to implement the changes. While I admit this type of work isn’t glamorous, it is an essential part of digital transformation.

Credit for inspiring this image must be given to this thread on Twitter.

Our work must now shift to support how digital change happens

Training, education, and peer-to-peer learning can bring about catalysts for digital change. We must focus these learning opportunities on developing an understanding of what digital could mean to an organisation, and how to put digital methodologies and working practices in place. In a discussion about digital training provision on Twitter, Dave O'Carroll (a charity digital specialist currently at GOSH) put it well; “Digital upskilling too often focuses on an approach akin to teaching people how to drive a car. But if you teach them how the engine works, and how to maintain the engine, they’ll ultimately become better drivers.” I share this belief in calling for a more holistic approach to digital training, which focuses on explaining the frameworks and methods behind more digital ways of working, and the ways they can be implemented. 

The work explaining why digital is important has mostly been done, and much of the sector accepts and understands its importance. We must now focus our efforts on improving the understanding of what digital is and how to implement its changes. 

Every effort was made to make this blog post as jargon- and buzzword-free as possible. 

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