In 2017, whilst we were colleagues at Doteveryone, Janet Hughes wrote this blog post — What a digital organisation looks like. It was very popular and we based our first Digital Leadership programme on its contents — which we went on to deliver with Cate and her team at ACAS. Three years on and I’m still not sure how many organisations in civil society quite get its meaning, but as Trusts and Foundations plan their support for civil society in this long crisis world, there’s much in it that we need to help land.
The main one for me, is that I hear lots of funders, membership and intermediary bodies talking about ‘organisational resilience’ and also talking about ‘digital’, as if these two things are separate.
You can’t be a resilient organisation in 2020 and going into the future if you aren’t ‘digital.’ And by ‘digital’ I mean the following — “Digital is something you are, not something you do.”
“Digital isn’t a list of things to do. It’s about how you think, how you behave, what you value, and what drives decisions in your organisation.”
“Digital isn’t just about organisations that deliver primarily digital products and services, either. A digital organisation is one that can operate effectively in our digital age — which means leaders in all organisations and from all sectors need a basic level of digital competence, curiosity and confidence.”
Organisational resilience in 2020 is about adaptive capacity, and when I look around at the civil society organisations who have been able to adapt in this phase of the crisis, it has been one of two groups. Those who are so under-resourced that they are adept at being inventive, creative and nimble (I’m not advocating for this, they need more resource), and those who understood early on that technology was fundamentally going to change everything, and to keep ahead of it you’d need to completely shift how you work. The latter group is where we focussed the first round of the Digital Fund — on organisations that were already stepping into a new way of working — discovering, testing, learning, iterating, adapting, and so forth.
We’ve already heard from a lot of that cohort how they were prepared and able to adapt to the crisis.We turned away applications to the Digital Fund that set out linear project plans, with detailed lists of activities, outputs and outcomes. What we wanted to invest resource in were teams that said — “ We don’t know what the world will look like in 12 months time, let alone 3 years, but we know we’ll need to be able to continually adapt. It’s those new capabilities that we need to invest in.” We looked for organisations that were asking good questions about themselves and the wider context, not those that thought they had answers.
Although Janet wrote her blogpost in the pre-COVID era of 2017, the five principles she outlined for what makes a digital organisation still hold true today. It’s definitely worth reading the whole of Janet’s post, but a few things I would pull out.
Too often, organisations are constrained by the technology, business processes and organisation design choices they’ve made in the past, to the extent that these things dictate the organisation’s strategy rather than the other way around.
Janet talks about when going through fundamental change, how it helps to have other mitigating circumstances, for example a burning platform. Civil society organisations definitely have that now. Business as usual shouldn’t dictate an organisation’s strategy — as the unpredictability and turbulence of times ahead will require an entirely different way of doing strategy.
Janet suggests promoting a learning environment where everyone is empowered to understand the changes digital technology and a networked society is bringing into the world. Of course I’d add people also needing to feel empowered to understand the changes that Covid and its ripple effects are also bringing — to the role of civil society, what’s required of organisations now, and so forth.
The next lesson is focused on leadership. Digital technology, and its impacts on society are always changing, evolving and adapting. That’s why successful resilient organisations always have bold, open and curious leadership teams who are willing to experiment and explore new ideas and new ways of working. This principle has been a key benefit to organisations responding to the coronavirus crisis.
Digital organisations skill up and empower their workforce. Rather than stick digital in a box, they make sure every team member can work digitally with confidence and competence. And digital organisations only use the technology that will help further their goals. This means not getting stuck in a tech rut even when it’s clear that systems are no longer working, or being distracted by a shiny new toy that has no relevance to the work.
Crucially, this work should involve every member of the organisation taking responsibility for mainstreaming digital into the culture, structure and working practices. And this is much more likely to happen with empowered, multidisciplinary teams who have access to relevant, real-time data about the changing environment and are empowered and equipped to respond. That’s what is most needed for an organisation to have resilience in 2020.