As we start a new decade, lots of people are looking back. In this post I share how I saw conversations about ‘digital’ changing over the last decade, and where we are now.
Looking back: the emergence of ‘digital’
Ten years ago I was on maternity leave with a newborn. When I returned from maternity leave I got a job as NCVO’s Head of Communications — a team which included roles managing our websites and email newsletters. ‘Digital’ as a field had not yet emerged.
It’s been fascinating working in this area over the last 9 years…
I remember first hearing about ‘agile’. A new recruit wanted to go on a course to become a certified scrum master, so I went along. We also did a course on being a product owner in the same week.
I remember going to to CAST’s launch event, and seeing interest in user research grow.
I remember when the main message became that ‘digital’ wasn’t a sub-set of communications, but instead was relevant to absolutely everything an organisation did. I remember being introduced to Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital, which explained this (and I still use it all the time).
Applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.
I remember the arrival of ‘digital transformation’ and wondering what on earth it meant. The shift from websites being important to ‘digital’ being ‘transformational’ probably made us all feel quite important, but I suspect I wasn’t alone in feeling hugely unsure about what to do about it, especially leading from the middle in organisations that weren’t ‘digitally mature’.
And I remember the idea of ‘digital maturity’ emerging. For me this was through Jo Kerr’s (and the Breast Cancer Care team’s) digital maturity matrix (since transferred to NCVO), which generated a huge buzz across digital teams in the sector. Then came CAST’s digital design principles, the Charity Digital Code, and so many more (see Nissa Ramsay and Helen Lang’s fascinating research into the many digital maturity frameworks that now exist).
‘Digital’ is now huge. It has all of these sub-disciplines (user research, UX design, product management, to name just a few). And it can mean many different things, as brilliantly described in Cassie Robinson’s cafe analogy.
I was just beginning to feel like I understood it…
Looking forward: the end of ‘digital’?
So, if ‘digital’ touches everything, if it means so many different things, is it worth talking about it at all?
I remember when Citizens Advice stopped using the word ‘digital’ and recruited a Director of Customer Journey instead of a Chief Digital Officer. More recently, Parkinson UK’s Julie Dodd (who was the the sector’s first Director of Digital Transformation) dropped the word ‘digital’ from her job title. I also went for a job title that didn’t include ‘digital’, and just this week Jo Kerr started as Director of Impact and Innovation at Turn2Us.
The National Lottery Community Fund’s Digital Fund is ‘funding organisations to transform the way they work, and the reasons they exist’, rather than funding projects that use digital technologies (NCVO is very lucky to be one of the fund’s 29 grantholders).
The Catalyst, ‘a coalition of major foundations, digital design agencies, civil society bodies and the UK government, seeking to massively accelerate the use of digital in the UK’s voluntary and charity sector’ on the one hand talks about digital, data and design (three big things in themselves) but on the other hand has a greater ambition:
to revolutionise how we tackle social and environmental issues in the UK: reshaping organisations to be more responsive to the communities they serve; more resilient; and more collaborative in the creation and scaling of solutions.
So may words, so many concepts: digital, technology, data, responsiveness, user-centred, lean, iterative, resilience, collaboration, transformation, evolution, maturity, and then there’s the whole service design field (which is going to be the subject of my next post)…
Where does that leave us? What language do we use to describe the work we’re doing? Does that even matter?
I have two perspectives on this:
My first instinct is to ask what will resonate with the majority of the charities, community groups and social enterprises that we exist to support. These are overwhelmingly small organisations. They’ve been told over recently years that ‘digital’ is really important. We know that they want more help with understanding what that means. The support that we and others provide needs to start where they are and use the language that they are comfortable with. It needs to focus on what really matters and respond to their needs (as well as being more coherent, as Cassie Robinson talks about in one of her #weeknotes). So when I’m thinking about how NCVO supports our members and the wider sector, that’s my current view.
But alongside this, right now NCVO is developing a new strategy. As I mentioned above, we’re also being funded by TNCLF to ‘transform the way [we] work’. So this is a great time to reflect on how we think about ‘digital’ internally as an organisation. Is the term understood, or helpful? Is now the right time to follow the example of other organisations? Should we drop ‘digital’ and focus on service design, or being ‘user-centred’ or something else? I honestly don’t know, but it feels like the right time to ask these questions.
What do you think? Have you explored what ‘digital’ (or any of those other words) mean in your organisation? I’d love to know.