How technology can help us sense challenges and solve them quicker

One of the most profound benefits of digital technology is that it can narrow the gap between new insight and new action.

We have tools to sense data and information much more quickly, efficiently and accurately — and we have processes that enable us to respond to that new data more quickly.

Whether it’s community navigation app, waze, guiding drivers around traffic jams up ahead; or social media providing more a direct (and open) channel for customer service responses; or user data showing the effects of different shades of the colour blue — not only is more data being generated, but — with the right mechanisms in place — we can respond to it more quickly. Amazon makes changes to its platform every 11 seconds based on its usage data; T-shirt designs on threadless only get printed based on user demand, and smart homes are programmed to only provide services when needed.

This shift in practice and available tools provides social organisations with an opportunity to better refine their services based on the behaviours and needs of their community. Not just through initial research and co-design, but in an ongoing relationship of ‘sense:respond’ and ‘new insight:new action’ with an ongoing dialogue that continually tailors services to the behaviours and needs of individuals.

Where this is possible, services become necessarily user-led.

An ongoing dialogue with users helps ensure any product/service still meets their needs

Not a digital ‘thing’

This isn’t a digital thing — it’s a responsive organisation thing. And it’s particularly crucial to social organisations as the challenges that need addressing change — not just because you’ve found a great solution so can move on to another challenge, but because people’s interactions with your service will change.

The behaviours of someone seeking help may be different from someone receiving support. Their behaviours on a cold Monday morning may be different from a warm Friday afternoon. That’s why ongoing sensing of the challenges is so important.

But here’s where digital plays a vital role. Sensing the right challenges to address isn’t just the research phase you do at the start of a project (though clearly that’s vital).

Analytics provides the opportunity to sense how people use your product/service; how they engage with your ideas, and how your service is bringing about the desired behaviours and outcomes. And the inherent flexibility of digital means you can respond quickly to that new insight, to alter or refine your offering.

Often the problem as given is misleading, and you have to work through a mass of data to define the real problem. Often this step consumes more time than deriving the solution. Einstein said: “If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it.”
Invention Intelligence, 1973

Another reason that it’s so crucial to sense and respond, is that we know *just* how important it is to ensure we’re addressing the right challenge. It’s difficult to justify and to fund time spent refining a problem, rather than getting on to finding a solution. Yet it’s critical to ensuring the value of any effort that follows.

Our accelerator programme

Our Fuse accelerator is 12 weeks long and although we spend lots of time in advance identifying the problem to address, we still take the first four weeks to really ensure we have honed in on the right challenge. One third of the time just identifying the challenge. The second third is spent testing and refining potential responses to that problem (refining the problem as we go), before finally looking to build and launch the response (with analytics that allow us to continue to sense and respond).

The mantra at CAST is ‘test-driven and user led’. By continually sensing and testing behaviours we can respond with products and services that are led by the ‘users’. This continuous, relentless focus means we’re narrowing the gap between sense and respond — or insight and action — developing the best solutions to the right challenges.

But there’s a further reason why this is important. Despite all the expertise in the sector, we can’t predict the behaviours (especially the digital behaviours) of the people and communities we’re trying to reach. No one can. Instead, we need to implement methods that allow us to test these behaviours; to find out, sense, and respond in appropriate ways, to ensure our work is adopted and effective.

We just don’t know how people will behave in the future, so we shouldn’t try to predict it. Rather, we should use insight-action processes to continually monitor their behaviours and tweak our activity and development accordingly. But not just on an individual or even project/product basis. This holds true for the ways in which our organisations and sector needs to respond to the shifting context in which we operate.

If social organisations are to remain fit for purpose in a changing world, we need to continually sense and respond to that changing world. It’s what CAST sets out to do, and why digital is such an important part of the future of our sector.

For those interested in sense and respond approaches, there’s a great book by that title.

This article was first published as a guest post on Civil Society.

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