It’s time to throw out your ‘digital’ strategy

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you may have noticed that we’ve recently changed its title to the CRUK Technology Team Blog. We’re no longer called the Digital team which is a pretty big deal for us.

In 2017, Cancer Research UK brought together the Digital team with the IT function. For the first time, the organisation hired a CIO with a seat at the board table, recognising how important technology had become in achieving our organisational goals and mission to beat cancer sooner. We now have one Technology team, and have just published our new strategy – but more about that in another post.

Becoming ‘Digital Masters’

So let’s rewind a bit. In 2014, we established our digital strategy, which was about becoming ‘ Digital Masters ‘. What did we mean by that?

For us, this was about adopting a digital mindset across the organisation. We wanted to integrate digital across everything we do at Cancer Research UK. And we specifically set ourselves a goal of digital no longer being a job title, but part of everyone’s job.

We’ve made an enormous amount of progress, and the creation of one Technology team presented the perfect opportunity to live our goal and drop the digital label from our own jobs.

But digital isn’t dead

This doesn’t mean that we’re done. (Is digital transformation ever done?) Or that digital is dead at Cancer Research UK. We’ve still got lots of work to do and will continue to embed digital skills across the organisation and improve the experience for our supporters, patients and other audiences.

Helping the charity see the benefits of user-centric, agile and lean ways of working is absolutely core to our mission. We’ve just made the conscious decision to not call these ways of working ‘digital’ anymore, as that often implies they’re only suitable for projects that have something to do with the internet, when in fact they are useful for all kinds of work. We’re also working to make our Technology strategy a key part of our organisational strategy, rather than a strategy for just the Technology team.

Helping CRUK become an adaptive organisation

I’ll write a separate post on our new strategy and how we got there, but in short we spoke to lots of colleagues across Cancer Research UK, and in our team, and came up with a new vision:

We see ourselves as driving this change, in partnership with other teams across the charity. And we’ve consciously not used the word ‘digital’ in our vision or strategy.

Some things we learnt along the way

1. Don’t talk about digital (transformation)

‘Digital’ means different things to different people and different organisations, and that’s okay. You could spend time looking for a single definition for your organisation, which a lot of people recommend, but I’m not sure it’s possible, especially if you work in a complex business which serves lots of different users in different ways. Have the conversation, spend the time to listen to the different points of view, but don’t get hung up about finding a single truth about what digital, or digital transformation, means to your organisation. There are lots of truths!

And in my opinion, digital transformation as a term is just a bit ‘meh’. If you said that word to the average user of your website, would they get it without a lengthy explanation from you? Probably not.

2. Be clear on your purpose

We spent a lot of time thinking about our purpose as a team, and how we help the charity. This feels slow and maybe not a good use of time if you could be getting on with improving services, fixing stuff, and building things. But it was really important for us to redefine our role and give people a chance to reflect on why we exist as a department.

Think about your organisation, what it’s there to do, and how you need to position yourself in that. That should be the core of your strategy. Not doing digital, or technology, for technology’s sake.

3. Everything is awesome … or not

When we started thinking about our new vision, we wanted to create something that everyone in our large Technology team of over 300 people can get behind, but that also doesn’t feel too broad, diluted and vague.

We were acutely aware we needed something to really inspire the team. But, bringing two very different parts of an organisation together is really hard and sometimes everything is not awesome. People had very different backgrounds and experiences, skills, ways of working, and ideas of what good feels like in terms of culture.

While reforming as a new team and living through some of the day-to-day tensions, other teams in the charity were looking for us to get on with the work and do everything, faster, better, and cheaper all the time. And although we want to do more and support Cancer Research UK better, it felt like we were being stretched ever thinner, which was hard on everyone and affected our resilience.

My learning has been that it’s okay to acknowledge this, and in fact people probably want to hear it. We’re hearing from colleagues that they want us to be open and honest about the things we’ve not done so well in the past, what we’re learning from that and what we’re going to do about it.

It’s okay to be vulnerable, people will most often open up and ask you how they can help you out.

4. Structure drives behaviour

I certainly don’t believe that structure is the answer to everything, but it can be a barrier to collaboration.

Think about how the hierarchies and rituals you have in place accelerate or slow down progress, and make it harder for people to get behind your purpose.

Sometimes structures can enforce some undesired behaviours, so think about what you can do to get around that. Maybe it’s building virtual teams that are made up from people from across your organisation, creating communities of practice, or doing things outside of work to bring people together.

It may not be within your control to change structure, but think about how you can help your people out by unblocking some of the things that your structure is putting in their way.

“Having a digital strategy will soon be ridiculous”

I’ll leave you with this quote, which is from 2015. In her report ” The New Reality“, Julie Dodd interviewed a bunch of leaders from inside and outside the non-profit sector about the social impact of digital. Kay Boycott, CEO Asthma UK said at the time: “Having a digital strategy will soon look as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy.”

This was 3 years ago and I’d say we’ve reached that point now. I’m pretty chuffed about coming true on our promise and ditching our digital strategy. I’d love to hear where other organisations are on this journey, and how you’re positioning digital in your organisation.

Do you have a separate strategy or are you able to infuse your organisational strategy with digital thinking? Let us know in the comments or connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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