Digital transformation is not really about digital – it is about people and culture

Digital transformation is not really about digital – it is about people and culture

Guest Bloggers | 23 September 2019

Joe Freeman, Head of Digital at Bloodwise, spoke last week at the Institute of Fundraising’s Directors’ Forum event on a panel on Digital Transformation. Here he explains how digital transformation is about people, and most importantly it should be focused on those people your charity is trying to help.

Digital transformation – it’s a phrase muttered by directors, chief executives and trustees in meeting rooms across the sector. You’ve read a blog post about it. You’ve heard a rumour that someone in another charity is dipping their toe in the water. You think it’s important, but you’re not quite sure what it is and how to go about it properly. Or if you even should.

Digital transformation. It’s a thing.

On Wednesday 18 September, an income of fundraising directors (I think that’s the right collective noun) gathered at the latest Directors’ Forum to hear a panel of experts discuss their experience of digital transformation. From what matters, to what it is – and importantly, what it isn’t.

Chaired by IoF Chair Amanda Bringans, the panel was made up of Dr Catherine Howe, Director of Design, Deliver and Change at Cancer Research UK; Lucia Adams, consultant, coach and former Innovation Lead at The Times (responsible for leading on the launch of their paywall, and making the paper profitable for the first time in 13 years); and me – Joe Freeman, Head of Digital at Bloodwise.

After introductions of our experiences and thoughts, it was apparent that we were all agreed on one very important fact: digital transformation is not really about digital. It’s about people, culture and ways of working.

It’s hard to bring something into an organisation that polarises opinion and means different things to different people, but this opening agreement was helpful and set a good basis for conversations about how to best manage change.

Lucia admitted that she is “violently opposed to the phrase digital transformation” and that its focus shouldn’t be on the digital side of things. “It should be 90% about humans, and 10% about technology,” she rallied. This boldness is needed here to help people really get to grips with this and start to focus on the right things to make this work.

It’s not about us

Another unifying thread that we as a panel focussed on was that any work we do in this space must be focused on the users. Your donors and beneficiaries; those who we help and those who help us.

Your work will fail if you replicate your internal needs in your digital work. What you think is important isn’t actually always what people want – so actually talking to those you’re working for whenever possible will make a huge difference.

Be evidence based when it comes to your work, using available data to create things that are of absolute value and will have the greatest impact. And recognise that it’s okay not to know things. Discovery is fun and you’ll learn so much to inform your work now and in the future and you will start to build an evidence based culture to all of your work.

This also brought us to a brief point about failure and how it’s okay to fail – as long as you are learning from that, documenting what happened and using that information when it comes to the thing you’re doing next.

There was wide agreement throughout the audience on this point, but it came with a recognition of the cultural challenges this can bring and our responsibilities to spend money wisely…

Are your leaders leading?

The subject of leadership came up too throughout our conversations, but perhaps not in the way you might expect. Obviously senior leadership need to understand all of this, but Catherine was keen to challenge us all on just who are our leaders internally when it comes to digital?

Rather than a top down model, distributed leadership works well at CRUK, allowing people to be experts and build their skills to help other teams meet their objectives. One thing’s for sure though – everyone needs to be on the same page with digital transformation, so you need to be clear on your principals and vitally, what your outcomes are and how you will determine success.

I was also keen to question whether we are struggling in this whole are because generally, at director level in charities, staff do not come from a digital background.

Directors have often inherited a digital department and I believe we will benefit hugely when the next generation of Communications Directors (for specifically that’s the department where most digital teams sit) are ex-Heads of Digital.

And it makes sense. Digital teams need to work with everyone in a charity and so are well placed to understand fundraising, PR, marketing, risk, compliance, campaigning… So a good fit to lead a comms function more generally. Let’s wait and see how this one plays out.

I hope we challenged your thinking

Overall, it was a great evening with some great discussions. And there are examples out there of charities excelling in this area, and tales of those really struggling.

But one thing’s clear – we need to keep talking about this and challenging ourselves to do better.

Learn about what others are doing but remember that no one approach is going to work here. Your organisation is different to mine, and so has different needs. Recognising your unique challenges will be a good place to start.

Have any thoughts? Think we’re all wrong or absolutely spot on? Jump into the comments below and let us know.

You can find the panel members on Twitter too if you want to reach out.

Catherine Howe: @curiousc
Lucia Adams: @lucia_adams
Joe Freeman: @JosephFreeman

Joe Freeman is Head of Digital at Bloodwise.

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