Making digital work
Charities in England and Wales may be aware that their regulating body, The Charity Commission, has issued guidance entitled Making Digital Work: 12 Questions for Trustees to Consider. It is interesting – and, indeed, instructive – to compare this with a publication with a similar name, Making Digital Work for You published by INSEAD Business School and written by Liri Andersson and Ludo Van der Heyden. The Ministry of Justice’s recent paper on Transforming our Justice System provides a practical study of these principles. And, generally, it is useful to reflect on those which are most important.
Much of the Charity Commission document is specific to domestic charities (NGOs with certain characteristics and tax advantages) and raises perfectly reasonable questions about governance, trustees, human resources, strategy, culture, ‘branding’ (ugh), reputation, fundraising and cyber security. There is also a section on resources which asks the questions that one would expect: except perhaps raising the likelihood that any digital provision is unlikely to be ‘fire and forget (see below). The two more generally relevant section are on service delivery and evaluation and success. These are worth quoting these in their entirety:
As more people seek help and information online, how could our charity support them? For example:
• can beneficiaries find information easily online about how they can access our services, whether via search engines, our website or our social media presences?
• which of our services could we deliver online and which are more appropriate to deliver offline?
• have we tested our assumptions with our audience?
• how can we deliver online services as effectively as possible?
• have we researched the options with service users and how will we test and review our findings?
• can beneficiaries access our services across a range of devices, from laptops to mobiles and tablets?
• are we providing beneficiaries with self-help content online?
• how could we use digital to scale up our service delivery?
• where we develop new digital products and services, have we considered how we can help them reach our audience, and how we can maintain their quality?
• have colleagues analysed who else is providing similar products and services digitally and can we partner with them if appropriate?
• how will we deal with any questions or complaints that beneficiaries and supporters might have about our services on social media?
• has our executive team considered our audiences’ expectations around use of digital, eg processing of payments?
And, on evaluation and success:
Do we understand what success looks like on digital? For example:
• how do our digital goals support the wider organisational strategic objectives?
• what are the key metrics that the board would like to see in its report from the executive?
• do we understand how to interpret these metrics, and if not how can the board be trained to do so?
• do we feel comfortable challenging our executive team on what it is achieving on digital?
• do we require additional support, whether in the form of a trustee, volunteer or consultant with digital expertise?
• how do we benchmark against other charities working in the same space?
The INSEAD study has a warning which is worth quoting in full as well:
Digital success is not primarily about technology
While over one third of respondents indicated their main digital initiative has delivered or exceeded expectations, as many as 60 percent stated it was too early to say.
Surprisingly, among those who claimed success, few (just 12 percent) attributed it to the right technology. It seems despite digital often being positioned as a technology, it is by and large the combination of a right vision, effective leadership, and a supportive culture that make the difference between success and failure. Successful digital initiatives typically start by understanding how digital is changing the business environment, and then proceed by defining how the organisation, its products and services, and also its business model can leverage the opportunities brought about by digital.
The INSEAD authors proceed on to give 10 very reasonable ‘recommendations to guide management through the digital world’. Their conclusion is that:
When considering what investments to make and capabilities to develop, managers, executives and boards need to take into account that digital does offer rich opportunities for innovation and distinctiveness, unavailable until now. Capitalising on this however, will require exploration, understanding and insight. In sum, be wary of “the promised golden path to digital heaven”, but do not ignore the possibilities brought about by innovation in digital technologies.
Application of these principles to the Ministry of Justice paper reveals some failure to take account of such principles, suggesting potential difficulties in implementation at a later date. In particular, there is:
- no testing of assumptions with ‘our audience’ as proposed by the Charity Commission (particularly if the audience is the real one, users, and the testing is required to be real, i.e. piloting rather than a consultation paper);
- no researching of options with service users and how the Court Service will test and review findings;
- no apparent research into who else might be providing similar products and services digitally and whether partnerships are appropriate;
- no apparent consideration of how the Courts Service will deal with any questions or complaints that beneficiaries and supporters might have about our services on social media;
- no apparent consideration of users’ expectations around use of digital, eg processing of payments;
- no statement of key metrics by which the online provision will be evaluated;
- no benchmarking against best provision – which, in this case, would involve international comparison.
Both the Charity Commission and INSEAD suggestions are fine and should be applied as appropriate. On the basis of a history of NGO management, a few years of looking at technology projects in the legal services field and the experience of this project, I would identify four crucial requirements for any technology project – most of these amount to repetition of well-honed management precepts outside the technology sphere.
First, we need to set objectives for technology projects – as for any others – that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timetabled. In the hackneyed language of management theory: SMART. Personally, I think you need to another T – for Transparent. We have to specify in advance what we will regard as success. For example, the target which I set for the twitter feed is a rise of 50 followers a month up to a minimum total of 750. We are attaining the monthly rise: we haven’t yet reached the total but at this rate we will – ahead of schedule. On the website and blog, no one could tell in advance the interest in a resource of this kind. The best month we have had so far attracted (on the basis of the doubtless fallible methodology of Google Analytics) 600 users. That seems a reasonable monthly target to sustain for the first year at least and good enough for comparison. We did not hit it last month. Part of the objective of the project is to assist in building a global constituency of those involved in the field: so, once established, we should probably be looking for at least a quarter of users in each month to be returners to the site. We have not hit that yet but it is early days.
Second, we need strict evaluation of projects against their objectives and it is very helpful for such evaluation to be public. All round the world, we are exploring what can be done. It is daft not to share the results.
Third, to repeat the point made by INSEAD, content is king. Ultimately, the judgement on any project designed to deliver legal services – whether advice or information – is the quality of the material itself, however it is delivered. This too needs to be included in any evaluation.
Fourth – and this is a point more specific to technology projects than the other three – those devising and funding projects need to recognise that digital delivery is different from print. Look how often your smartphone’s operating system is updated. Or any app on that phone. The digital world requires – and facilitates – constant adjustment to user feedback and customer experience. This needs to be reflected in how budgets are allocated and spent.
Overall, contributions like that from the Charity Commission and INSEAD are greatly to be welcomed. There is a potentially really rich discussion to be had here on the best ways to attain success in a field where it is all too easy to begin with high hopes and end flat on your face.