Shambles the dog

Shambles the dog

A while back I spoke at an event called Digital Discovery (hosted by Green Park, you can find out about it here).  It’s an event for third sector leaders and so I racked my brains in advance of the event to think of the things that people, especially leadership teams, often ask me about digital.   One of the things that is often said to me is that people can’t see how digital will disrupt them because what they do is diverse, complex and often very challenging.  How would, for example, a digital start-up replace cancer nurses or specialist children’s workers they might ask.

If your top team don’t buy that digital is crucial to the organisation’s future relevance then when the sticky parts of digital transformation hit the fan (budget, resources, culture changes) you can expect to find it slow going, so this felt like a good topic. I ended up with the set of notes below and a talk about what my dog could tell me about digital transformation…

Here’s a picture of my dog, Shambles – she’s totally lovely and, as a type of collie, she’s also quite bright.  For all her brains though she doesn’t spend as long as she might mulling the challenges that digital brings to the third sector.  However, I think she can tell us something quite important about what’s happening to our sector and what you leaders with an organisation can do to ensure that your organisation makes the most of the opportunity digital offers to you.  

Recently, when I asked someone why an organisation needed to be more digital they said ‘we must be digital or we will be dead’.  That’s definitely true in the  commercial world that we are all very familiar with but is it as true in the charitable sector?  We know that organisations which have been commercially successful are those who take advantage of new technologies and behaviours to solve user needs more effectively – so iTunes solved user needs better than the HMV and eBookers was more effective than a travel agent.

And we know what happens to those companies who haven’t evolved to meet those needs – they may still exist – there’s still a Thomas Cook for example – but the model they operate on is no longer the dominant one in the industry.  Those are things we all know and experiences we are all familiar with but how do you apply them back to third sector organisations?   There hasn’t been such a clear cut example of a new model totally dominating an existing model.  And that is, I think, because many of the larger charities exist to serve a wide range of often complex needs.   So is digital transformation as important in the third sector as elsewhere?

That’s where I think my dog may have some insight because Shambles is a rescue dog.  Ten years ago if I wanted a rescue dog I would have gone to the RSPCA or Dog’s Trust, two brilliant charities.   And I would have picked from the dogs they had on offer or gone on a waiting list.  They ‘owned’ the major way of meeting that user need and if I couldn’t meet my precise needs with them then I would probably need to compromise a little on what I wanted.  But then the internet came along and offered a new solution, a rescue dog aggregator, that acts much like the insurance or travel aggregators. Now I can see dogs from around the country and, indeed, from around the world who are looking for a home.  And that’s how come I live with a dog from the streets of Greece.

Another example would be that when a major humanitarian disaster strikes the route to helping in the UK has been via the main UK international charities and particularly major organisations such as the British Red Cross and the DEC.  But in the last few years new ways have begun to emerge that offer different options allowing us a wider choice of ways to fulfill our desire to help. In 2015 when the terrible earthquake struck Nepal like many people I wanted to help.  On social media I could see that a group of people who lived in Nepal had set up an organisation  – http://www.wehelpnepal.org -to help them fund their local NGOs.    They offered a way  ‘disintermediate’ the large organisations and were able to reach global audiences in a way that wouldn’t have been possible just a couple of years before.

The same is true for the user needs you have as a beneficiary.  A few years ago, if, like my dad, you were unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease you had a couple of sources of help and information – Parkinson’s UK and the NHS.  Now we are able to access information and solutions being generated globally.  An example of this is that my dad gets help with his movement both from a physical Parkinson’s UK group but he also uses an app on his iPhone developed by an Irish start-up.  And this is one of the key ways that the world is changing for charities and is the world we must respond to.  

Whilst it is perhaps less likely that an organisation will spring into life to do exactly what you do there will be bits of your offer where new models will emerge and change the market and so you may be gnawed away at from the sides rather than necessarily eaten whole.  What might be left are the areas that are harder, less sexy, more difficult to digitise and that might be ok – if the user needs are being met well then it may reduce the role of the sector.  But there is much that third sector organisations have to offer that could make their digital offering excellent and retain their relevance in a changed world.  

 I’m lucky enough to work across the sector with many different organisations and, whilst I don’t think  there is one clear path to success, I think there are things which you can do at a board level that will help ensure you are an organisation better able to take advantage of the opportunity digital offers.  Here are a few of them:

  • Be clear what it is you exist to do – what user needs or charitable aim you most exist to solve – and define your goals as clearly as you possibly can. We can all think of organisations like Blockbuster or the HMV who perhaps wrongly defined the user need they met and consequently didn’t move rapidly enough.
  • Try not to let what is currently possible, or how you are currently structured, stop you from seeing possible solutions.
  • You don’t have to know the answer, you have to know the question.  There are some new and brilliant ways of delivering answers that enable you to cheaply test products in the market and learn as you go.  
  • You don’t need to know a huge amount about technology to play a very significant part in making this succeed.  A lot of the time when I chat to senior people they start by telling me that they don’t understand a huge amount about technology and I think that’s ok, that’s my job.  You do need to know how to enable the change by putting in place the right culture, people and processes.  And that’s really challenging and particularly in our sector where we are structured very differently from new organisations.
  • You will not reach a point where this will stop – there is no end to ‘transformation’.   Google hasn’t stopped evolving its business model or its working practices and so it’s unlikely that we will either.
  • Start.  The challenge of digital is not going to disappear and the very best way to learn what is required is to start defining the user need you wish to meet, developing possible solutions and learning on the job. 

Also published on Medium.

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