How to think about digital strategy

I speak to a lot of organisations now who are increasingly worried about their digital strategy. “I’ve been told we need to have one” or “I’m not sure what it is but we need to get it right” are some of the most common refrains.

Well the good news is you don’t need a bespoke digital strategy. The days when digital was a separate box which you could ignore or throw some specialists at are long gone. The bad news is that your strategy has to absolutely be digital.

What do I mean by that? The business, charitable, public or any other landscape has now become thoroughly digitised. The internet and the services it supports now permeate every aspect of our lives from communications (twitter, facebook, email), to operations (online stores, forms, invoicing, payments) and decision making (analytics, big data, transparency initiatives).

More to the point, we and our children have become digital natives, used to the convenience and reach our devices give us. In this context having a strategy that does not take into account digital is a bit like a ship’s captain navigating without reference to the sea.

So how can we make our strategies more digital? Or, more exactly, how we can let the realities, capabilities and restrictions of our digital environment inform our strategy? Much ink, electronic and otherwise, has been spilled on this topic but I would recommend three steps as a good start:

  1. Understand the legacy
  2. Remove the box
  3. Recognise how digital works

Understand the legacy

One of the biggest issues for many organisations is historically they have treated digital as a distinct area away from their core business. So you may have a company that is organised around offline services such as accounting or training. In this case the digital team, if there is one, tends to occupy a separate division from operations or say marketing. They look after the server, make sure the email works or update the website.

The problem arises when the majority of your customers decide they want to interact with you digitally i.e. online. This gives new online focused organisations such as Xero (accounting) or Codeacademy (training) a fantastic opportunity to take those customers away from you. They have digital capabilities embedded in every part of their organisation and are able to interact fluidly with the customer to maximum benefit. Whereas, your marketing people are suddenly trying to call up your IT department to co-ordinate social media and refresh the website using procurement procedures designed for buying desks.

Remove the box

Once you understand the problem, one of your first steps should be to remove the conceptual barriers that confine you thinking. Instead of a distinct area, you should think about how digital can inform every aspect of your business from promotions and operations to fundraising and stakeholder management. For each area you should ask:

  1. What do my current practices look like in a digital context?
  2. How could I use digital tools to improve our performance?
  3. What limitations or threats does digital represent?

Examples can include automating certain customer interactions, deciding to alter customer records in case they infringe data protection law or accepting online communications for secure transactions.

Recognise how digital works

OK so you have understood the problem and identified how digital can improve things. The next step is to implement a plan of action. There are two mistakes people make at this point and both can be explained by the common and wrong analogy of the building. The assumptions here are that like a building you can:

a) specify your requirements and then commission a final product that will satisfy your objectives,

b) once the builders have left you will have little need for their skills beyond maintenance.

A much better way to think about it is you are commissioning a ship for your organisation to sail uncharted waters. Your people have always operated on dry land so they are not sure if their processes will translate exactly to the sea environment, the seas themselves are unpredictable and may require your ship to undergo serious changes so having an engineer on board seems like a basic precaution.

What does this mean in practice? The plus side is that unlike their building based counterparts digital products are uniquely flexible and accessible for existing professionals. First, stop thinking of procurement and development as separate processes and adopt a process that is suited to digital. The Government Digital Service provides a fantastic guide on how to do this and you can rest easy in the knowledge that it has been tried successfully on a whole country. Second, hire a chief engineer or have one of your senior team develop those skills. There are many free, professional grade courses available on the web and these can be picked up by anyone willing to invest the time and effort into doing so.

So if you want to assuage your digital concerns I recommend you understand the legacy, remove those boxes and recognise what it takes. A word of caution though, no process in the world can work without your team being behind it. Digital like anything else takes time, effort and skill. The traditional skills of listening and communication are just as important as they always have been and you must make sure your team can see the benefits for both your organisation and them in making the transition. If you do all the above you are well on your way to making your strategy 21st Century compliant.