Digitally-literate staff are key to charity digital success

This article appeared in the Guardian's Voluntary Sector Network Blog on the 7th November 2011.

In September I had the good fortune to go to Culture 24's conference Let's Get Real. I say good fortune because, as a newcomer to the cultural sector, it gave me an insight into the state of digital in the sector, and some real food for thought about the similarities and differences to the world of charity, from which I have just come.

Culture 24 is a remarkable organisation. Its goal is to reach and inspire existing and new culture lovers to visit Britain's myriad of cultural institutions, explicitly through digital platforms. In a sector that has sometimes been slow to grasp the full potential of digital, it has been a critical player in driving traffic - virtual and real - to our museums and galleries. Indeed, in 2009 the Guardian listed it in its top 100 essential websites.

But Jane Finnis, Culture 24's chief executive, isn't resting on her laurels. The organisation is determined to make the sector confront the more difficult questions of measurability and value for money in a bid to make our cultural organisations count in an increasingly noisy and attention-poor digital world.

The vehicle for this was a year-long action research project, led by Culture 24 and involving 17 different UK cultural venues. The resulting report Let's Get Real is a call to action for the sector to take a critical look at its goals, purpose and strategy for leveraging digital to achieve measurable (successful) outcomes.

The report was launched at a conference at the Watershed in Bristol, which brings me neatly back to where I started this blog.

What I heard was a reassuringly (or depressingly, depending on how you look at it) familiar litany of the things that stand in the way of digital success. Internal politics, lack of money, lack of evidence, legacy technologies and lack of experience are all things that will be well-known to my friends and colleagues in the charity sector.

As a former head of digital at one of the UK's best-loved charities, I know full well how excruciatingly complex even the simplest development can be to deliver. When clearing through the clutter of my five years at Macmillan Cancer Support, I paused to reflect on the strategy paper I confidently presented to the executive team in my early days. I laughed out loud – how woefully naïve was I to think I could change so much so quickly?

And thinking about this, I wondered if sometimes the problem is not of barriers but of expectation? The internet is changing everything irrevocably at such a dizzying pace that it is hard not to be swept up in the desire to deliver massive change in impossibly-short timescales.

I'm willing to wager that digital teams in every sector are running to keep up with every corner of digital development, rapidly assimilating the newest kid on the scene to work out whether or not it should feature in the next iteration of strategy. And while they're doing this, they're trying to articulate the benefits of something so new it's untried and untested to an eager but uncomprehending audience.

And in among all this, it's easy to forget that the most important aspect of delivering this change isn't the website or the product itself, but the people behind it who are its real engine. It's one thing to deliver a fabulously interactive website, but if you don't have the resources behind it to keep it running, it'll be just window-dressing.

A really good organisational strategy (note I don't say digital) will focus on delivering not just the digital assets, but also the organisational change: a digitally-literate staff who can have the conversations in social spaces, produce the content and manage communities - and who are comfortable with sharing their public professional identities.

No longer can those skills be the preserve of the harried and over-stretched digital teams. We have passed the tipping point where digital is something new, it just is.

That means that every function in any organisation now needs to be re-written as digital. And that's just too big to be the responsibility of one specialist team.
At Macmillan, I referred to this as "operationalising digital". The phrase itself is rather meaningless jargon out of context, but the intention was to articulate a need for a bigger cultural shift in the organisation to enable it to utilise digital technology to achieve its bigger ambition. Who better to inspire donors via social networks than the fundraising team? Who more qualified to facilitate discussion on policy than the policy team?

This brings me back to my earlier thought about expectation. It isn't technology that will deliver the biggest change; it's people. And changing people is really hard. The seemingly endless array of books, articles and seminars on the subject is testament to that fact.

In setting our expectations for change, we all too often neglect to plan and strategise for the people change. Across the board, I see that we are all generally better at finding out what our customers think and want, but how much energy do we invest in making sure that the solutions work for the people within our organisations too?

And those stakeholders are not mutually exclusive: a happy workforce capable of utilising the technology to speak to their customers must surely make for good relationships?

We often repeat the mantra "your website must reflect the needs of your users not your internal structures". Quite right, but let's make sure the internal structures meet the needs of the user too.

So, yes, let's get real about users, goals, technology and metrics. But let's make sure we're real about organisational change, too.

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