DigiScot Talk: Asynchronous working as part of a learning culture

Introduction

I work on the product team that focuses on young people -facing products. That includes the digital services we build ourselves and the off-the-shelf products like Zoom and Teams. Our team has about twenty people and we’ve never all been in the same meeting at the same time. We work asynchronously, which for us means being in-sync about the important things; the outcomes of the work, and not being tied to less important things like having to all work at the same time and in the same way.

We don’t have all the answers. We’re still learning how to make this work for everyone, but three of our priorities are how we learn and share knowledge more effectively, how we give people the freedom to work in ways that are best for them, and how we quickly respond to changes and new problems.

Learning, and integrating learning into the organisation Our team (in fact, I think, everyone who works for any modern knowledge work organisation) has two jobs; learn, and integrate that learning into the organisation. This should be the goal for all modern knowledge workers who are creating new knowledge. If that knowledge stays in the head of one person it can’t be utilised effectively by the organisation. So having effective ways of sharing information is an essential aspect of async working.

Meetings are not that. They aren’t effective ways of sharing information. They are left over from a time before the internet when organisations didn’t have any other means of telling people stuff. Meetings and calls have their place, but they serve a social purpose rather than an information sharing one. They can help people feel connected, help with team cohesion, etc., so I’m not saying we need to never have meetings, but we need to clear on what purpose they serve. Meetings aren’t even great for discussion because they favour quick thinkers and don’t allow for equal input from slower reflective thinkers. And in any discussion it’s usually the loudest most persuasive voice that wins.

Writing and drawing instead of always talking and listening are under-utilised asynchronous tools for thinking and communicating. More asynchronous working gives us more opportunities for everyone to contribute and learn. It gives us time to be considered and reflective, deliberate and thoughtful. It prioritises depth of thinking and writing over the speed of thinking and talking.

Communicating, and pulling information when it works for you

Async communication work best when everyone gets to contribute at a time that works for them along with all the other work they’re doing, has time to develop their thoughts on the subject, and learn from what others think. Compare this to joining a video call with no agenda or preparation, and being expected to think effectively and make good decisions. It’s no wonder that so many meetings end with an action to arrange another meeting.

We still have way too meetings, but most of our discussions take place in Word documents. The body of the document contains what we’re talking about, and the discussion takes place in comments, and once something is agreed it’s written into the document. When someone sends an email the information in it is limited to those the email was sent to. That’s what email is good for; passing a fixed piece of information that doesn’t really require any discussion to a fixed group of people. But if we want people to contribute, to build on the information and improve it, and to learn as they do it, then putting the same information in a shared document and working on it together gives us better quality decisions and longer-lasting information which is available to anyone and for as far into the future as needed, which is hardly ever the case with meetings, calls and emails.

The challenge with communication is to create ‘pull’ systems where the information is available when someone needs it, and not ‘push’ systems which send information to people when they’re working on something else and so causing distraction and information-overload. All those products which send a notification email every time an update is made, or show how many chat messages you haven’t viewed yet are bad for really effective asynchronous working because they push themselves to you and demand your attention now regardless or whether you’re in the flow with something else.

Even though we write lots of documents, I’m always keen to guard against assuming that they have all the information in them. So I’m big on encouraging questions. When someone asks a question they are coming from a particular context which affects the answer they need and means the right information might not be in the document. When I reply to question, even if the answer could have been a single sentence, I’ll often try to explain about the background, why the decision was made, what implications or unknowns we’re aware of, all because keeping that information in my head doesn’t help anyone else learn. I’m sure some people find that really annoying and just want the short answer but we all have to make sacrifices for the goal of learning.

Working together, in small lightweight temporary teams within teams

Asynchronous working allows for different ways for teams to organise themselves and their work. We want to be synchronised around outcomes; what we want to achieve and when, but we want to try to remove as many dependencies as we can so that we’re able to respond to change without any drastic impact on the project.The 20-person strong team I’m part of is a cross-functional team, which means it’s made up of people with different skill sets, and is focused the one big project we’re working on. But sometimes something new comes up. A new problem to solve, something we didn’t know about before. It might be considered part of the project we’re working on, or it might not. We don’t want to distract everyone on the team, so we get together a small lightweight temporary project teams made up of people from within the larger team and outside of it to focus on solving the new problem.

One of those times was when we wanted to make it easier for young people using Microsoft Teams to ask for help. So we set up one of these lightweight temporary teams made up of someone from our safeguarding team, a designer, a developer and me. We started a Word doc, all added to it to get to a good enough understanding of the problem to solve, what constraints we faced, and what solutions could look like. We settled on the solution being an app that would live in Teams and have its own button in the Teams menu so that if someone had any questions they could click that button and the app would open and provide them with ways of getting help. So, even though our colleague from the safeguarding team had never worked this way before the rest of us were familiar enough to help her contribute effectively and we were able to design a solution within about 48 hours of picking up the work, and alongside other work we were doing. If we weren’t working asynchronously it have taken us longer than that to find time when everyone was available to have meeting to talk about the work before even doing any work.

Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard, calls this way of working ‘Teaming’. She describes it as “teamwork on the fly. It involves coordinating and collaborating without the benefit of stable team structures,” It’s a skill that enables groups of people who aren’t part of a formal team and don’t have a history of working together to work effectively together for a short period of time. I think the asynchronous mindset of not having to be doing the same thing at the same time as someone else helps with adopting this way of working because it has a low overhead for organising people. All it takes is a document and writing clearly what we’re thinking about to get started.

Asynchronous teaming also has an interesting side-effect. The people who work in those teams, they spread knowledge from one temporary team to another, which helps to increase learning for everyone. It creates a network of knowledge transfer. It uses Stanford professor Mark Granovetter’s idea about the strength of weak ties. Where we talk about how not being in offices means we miss out of those informal coffee-break chats, creating a these network where everyone talks to people that they wouldn’t have if they only worked within formalised team boundaries means people, maybe it can help.

Asynchronous working at its best leads to a learning culture where two things are true: One, people know stuff that is beneficial for them to know, that isn’t necessarily part of their formal job title, and they don’t know how they came to know it. And two, learning and knowledge sharing are regarded as an implicitly beneficial activity as much as the producing of outputs of work. We’re still working on achieving both of those, but if you’re interested in trying asynchronous working I’d say the three things to try out are:

  • Make writing and drawing the default ways to communicate before meetings (not as well as).
  • Focus on sharing knowledge and learning rather than coordinating people and work.
  • Pick a small problem and get a group of people who wouldn’t normally work together to solve it.

Resources

SVCO blog post: How to share ideas when you don’t share a space

What is agile project management?

If you search online for ‘agile project management’ you get video of people talking about project managing an agile development process. Well duh. I think we can do better than that.

Project management that had agility would be adaptable, accepting of uncertainty and responding to change, would deliver value at the earliest opportunity, and would bring people together to share knowledge and shape the plan.

How might this approach show itself in something like a project plan? Instead of starting with a high fidelity plan that has unknown gaps, maybe the plan would start in low fidelity, defining the big chucks of the project so all those involved get some immediate value from the plan. Maybe the big chunks are things like scope, time, budget, people. And then as more information becomes available the plan is iterated upon to reach a slightly higher degree of fidelity, and again to even higher fidelity, all the time delivering value.

Fidelity increases with each iteration

This kind of approach acknowledges that there are unknowns in the plan and would fuel conversations as people fill the gaps, meaning people have to work together to develop the knowledge. The plan is the output of those conversations but it’s the collaboration that makes the plan a reality.

“I love it when a plan comes together”

Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith

A capabilities approach to digital transformation

The challenge of digital transformation; to build capabilities in people whilst at the same time moving away from the capabilities that the organisation holds in its processes and values in order to deal with new problems.

Christensen & Overdorf said,

“As successful companies mature, employees gradually come to assume that the processes and priorities they’ve used so successfully so often are the right way to do their work. Once that happens and employees begin to follow processes and decide priorities by assumption rather than by conscious choice, those processes and values come to constitute the organization’s culture. As companies grow from a few employees to hundreds and thousands of them, the challenge of getting all employees to agree on what needs to be done and how can be daunting for even the best managers. Culture is a powerful management tool in those situations. It enables employees to act autonomously but causes them to act consistently. Hence, the factors that define an organization’s capabilities and disabilities evolve over time-they start in resources; then move to visible, articulated processes and values,- and migrate finally to culture. As long as the organization continues to face the same sorts of problems that its processes and values were designed to address, managing the organization can be straightforward. But because those factors also define what an organization cannot do, they constitute disabilities when the problems facing the company change fundamentally. When the organization’s capabilities reside primarily in its people, changing capabilities to address the new problems is relatively simple. But when the capabilities have come to reside in processes and values, and especially when they have become embedded in culture, change can be extraordinarily difficult.”

The processes organisations use are designed to be repeatable with minimal variation, the values organisations hold show themselves in the assumptions decisions are based on, and the culture that organisations promote becomes mono-culture, preventing counter-culture, and holding back change.

What capabilities do organisations need their people to have in order to respond effectively to new problems? Broadly speaking the answer is obvious. They need more digital capabilities. To be ‘digital’ means to be user-focused first and foremost, to utilise internet-era ways of working and thinking, to build on the known success of others. But how do organisations get more digital capabilities?

The usual approach to learning and development is based on some variation of the 70-20-10 model of organisational learning where 70% of learning is experiential or on-the-job. This relies on the assumption that there is sufficient knowledge and experience within the organisation, but in many cases there isn’t and in the cases where there is it is prevented from being utilised by the existing values and culture. Of course, very few organisations are completely lacking in digital capabilities. They have good people everywhere who outside of work are probably as digital at home as the organisation wish they were at work, but when they sign-in each morning they adopt those organisational values and processes that prevent them from using those capabilities.

There is no perfect organisational structure, but there is a lot to be said for decoupling how power flows through the organisation from how information (and so learning) flows. Power flows through hierarchies and traditional org structures and it will for a long time to come. Many organisations have tried flat, holocratic and matrix structures and it never works, so let power and authority flow through the hierarchies. Focus on creating networks for the information to flow. The more people that feel able to share more information and learning the more they all benefit. The more learning opportunities people create the faster people can learn.

Transforming an organisation into a 21st century fit, digital organisation requires breaking down those existing processes and values to put people first.

5 Charity Digital Trends in 2021

Empower ‘s five charity digital trends, inspired me to think about where I see the focus going for charities increasing and improving their digital skills and services in 2021.

More considered product suite

Charities will give greater consideration to which products and digital services they adopt.

There will always be the tension between going where the people are, which means using products like Zoom and Whatsapp where user security and privacy might not be top priority, and ensuring that the people a charity interact with online are safe and well-protected. As digital knowledge around security and privacy grows, charities will give greater consideration to choosing which way to resolve that tension. Sometimes that will mean adopting products that are new to those people the charity supports and accepting the short term pain of encouraging adoption in return for the long term gain of helping people understand the importance of cyber security.

More communities

Building communities will win out over growing supporters

Small online communities popped up in lots of places in 2020. From neighbourhood Whatsapp groups, to support groups on Facebook, and Zoom yoga classes, everyone was joining and building online communities. As charities reconsider that it means to engage and interact with people online we’ll see a shift away from mass communication on big social media platforms towards small well-focused, and in many cases private, online communities.

Back to the basics of digital

User-first thinking means recognising that sometimes digital isn’t the right solution

Digital thinking is user focused. And if the best thing for the user is to receive a hand written letter on a piece of actual paper, then that is the solution digital thinking should provide. Charities will increasingly adopt a digital mindset over digital technologies to focus on solving the problems people face.

Exploring connected services

More charities will focus on partnership working to tackle more complex problems

In our increasingly interconnected society we’re becoming more and more aware of how complex the problems people face are, and that one organisation working alone cannot solve them. Charities will turn to partnership working as the first thought in tackling problems. We’ll see more joint bids for funding to provide more cohesive and effective services, and people will get better help as charities turn outwards to work more with other organisations.

Looking after each other

More people in the charity sector will take more time to look after themselves and each other

If we haven’t yet realised how important well-being is for the health of our minds and bodies, our families, society and our organisations, then 2021 will encourage more charities to figure out how to enable it’s people to work from anywhere, work flexible times around other commitments, and achieve good things in healthy ways. The idea of people as replaceable resources, as cogs in the machine that just need to do what they’re told to do, is dead. Charities that encourage, or even expect, their people to be creative individuals using all their capabilities will be more successful in 2021, which in case anyone is in any doubt, is going to be a year full of challenges that need kind, intelligent, adaptable people to make a difference.

Some thoughts on digital project management

Inspired by be more digital‘s post on Simple project management here are some of my far less useful thoughts on managing digital projects.

Why is digital project management different from non-digital project management?

Because the Internet changed everything. It changed almost every aspect of our lives, it changed how organisations run, and it changed the way we think. Internet-era ways of working from Public Digital and the Digital Design Principles from CAST have lots in common (including a move away from project-orientated thinking, but more of that below). A few of the principles that change how we approach project management from a digital mindset are:

  • User first – Digital projects should ‘start with user needs, and keep them involved’, ‘design for user needs, not organisational convenience’, ’embed user research’, and understand how ’emerging technology may alter or create behaviours’.
  • Test and learn – Digital projects should ‘Start small and optimise for iteration’, ‘Take small steps and learn as you go’, and ‘Make things open; it makes things better’.
  • Safe, secure, private, accessible and sustainable – Digital projects need to understand the opportunities, and risks that being online brings. This includes, ‘Be inclusive’, ‘think about privacy and security’, ‘build for sustainability’, and ‘Recognise the duty of care you have to users, and to the data you hold about them’,

Whether the project work is digital, such as building a new website, or not, the project can and should be managed using these kinds of modern principles and practices. It achieves better things for the people that use what the project delivers.

Does it need to be a project?

Is the work you intend to undertake really a project or is it just what you do packaged as a project?

  • Will it have a deadline for completion that is external to the work? – Not just a date that senior management teams want it finished by but a date where something else is going to happen that will fail is the project isn’t completed on time.
  • Will this work have a separate budget from other work? – Not just a line on an internal budget sheet but actually a specific and dedicated budget, perhaps from a funder who expects this project to be delivered using the funds.
  • Will it have people dedicated to working on it (maybe even, if you’re lucky, as their only priority)? – Not people doing this work as part of their usual day job but either this is all they work on or it is very clearly recognised that they are working on this in addition to their day jobs.

If you’ve got three No’s it probably means the work you want to do either isn’t a project or is a project in name only. Three Yes’s means you should probably be approaching the work as a project. Why does it matter? Because, even though all work is fundamentally about these three things: time, money and people’s knowledge and efforts, a project ties them together more tightly and has extra pressure on all three.

What are you managing?

There is a universal law of projects; there is always too much to do in too little time. And there are really only three ways to deal with it:

  • Reduce what work you do to fit it to the time available,
  • Increase the time available to fit the work you want to do, or
  • Increase the capacity and capability of people working on the project.

Actually, in reality, a flexible shifting of all three is most likely to help a project be successful. It might be seventy or so years old, but the iron triangle of project management represents these three things as Scope, Time and Cost. It says that:

  • The quality of work is constrained by the project’s budget, deadlines and scope.
  • The project manager can trade between constraints.
  • Changes in one constraint necessitate changes in others to compensate or quality will suffer.

‘Quality’ is at the centre of the triangle. A project that is delivered on time, on budget and scope, is considered of high quality. A project that is late, over budget, or doesn’t deliver what it should is considered of lower quality. Project management is about managing the quality of the project. It is done through managing the scope of the work, the available budget and the time and skills people have, but project management is much more then just task management.

Managing the work

How do you prioritise project work?

You shouldn’t. All of the work that needs to be delivered in a project is the work that need to be delivered. Using Must, Should, Could (MoSCoW), for example, as a means of prioritising the bits of work introduces more uncertainty than it brings clarity. “What do you mean by we ‘should’ do this piece of work? Are we doing it or not?”. There shouldn’t be any uncertainty about the deliverables.

Prioritisation is often used as a proxy to avoid having the difficult conversation about scope, time and people, but all it does is cloud the issues and take focus away from delivering the project. Keep it simple. The project work is all of the work, and all of it is important (if it isn’t important why is it even part of the project). If you can’t deliver it all, for whatever reason, have the conversations that lead to solutions.

Working in phases

Phasing project work is sometimes seen as a means of deprioritising some work. “We’ll do it in phase 2” sometimes means some non-specific future that may or may not occur. If that’s the case, let it go and focus on delivering the current project. If the project is actually broken into phases then you need a means of deciding which work to do in each phase. Assuming that each phase corresponds to work being released to users, then the work should be sliced by what will be most valuable to the people who are going to be using it. One thing finished and delivered in a phase is better than two half finished things over two phases.

Managing time

Is the project on schedule?

All project schedules are a guess. Some guesses are better than others, and having some sense of when the project will finish is important (as I said above, what usually makes projects different from other work is the added pressure which often isn’t sustainable for long uncertain periods). Sometimes the ‘is the project on schedule?’ question is more often a reporting problem-to-solve than it is a scheduling problem. Because no one ever really knows whether a project is on schedule at any point in time until it’s delivered, this question is really asking how confident are we that it will be delivered on time. How that confidence is communicated is more fundamental than answering schedule questions.

Managing people

Do the people have the right capabilities and capacity?

For a project manager, managing people isn’t about telling people what to do, it’s about ensuring the project team have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to be able to do the work required in the project, and that the team has enough time to do all the things. This is often the hardest part of project management, which is why the easier parts of managing scope and schedule are often focused on instead. The people involved in a project are the greatest factor in the quality of the project being delivered, give them the consideration they need.

Good digital project management not only puts users first, it also puts the people on the project team ahead of scope and schedule. (Tweet this)

To improve the charity sector focus on the weak links

Changing an entire sector is a coordination challenge. How do you get enough people doing the right stuff to make a difference?

Improving the charity sector, either a particular aspect of it, or the entire sector, requires less focus on the high profile charities and well-known people, and instead more focus on the people who aren’t even aware of the charity sector and on the organisations that don’t engage with other organisations in the sector. These are the people and organisations where even small changes can have large impacts.

How strong is the sector?

In 1983, Jack Hirshleifer, an American economist, introduced the concept of ‘weak links’ with the analogy of a low lying island that is protected from flooding through a network of interconnected dikes. Each person on the island decides how strong a dike to build on their land, yet the island will be flooded if the weakest dike breaks (Hirshleifer, 1983). Hirshleifer’s point was that isn’t the average or total contribution of each person that protects the island but the minimum contribution (Gillet et al, 2009).

The charity sector is a weak link environment, just like that island. The strength of the protections it builds for society and the environment against inequalities and destruction are not the average of all the efforts of the sector, they are only as strong as the weakest part of that defense. The world only gets better if it gets better for everyone.

If it were a strong link environment then all beneficiaries would benefit from the success of the biggest and most successful charities, but of course they don’t. The young man in Southampton who needs support to tackle his drug addiction only benefits from the success of those charities that support him.

Because the charity sector lacks any strong coordination mechanisms (Riedl, 2011), and because it’s success in/for society is dependent on the minimum contribution, we can apply the lessons of game theory and what it tells us about weak links to improving the sector. If we accept the charity sector is a weak link environment, then we have to ask, who are the weak links?

Who are these people?

Is membership of the charity sector through self-identification? If you work in HR and identify with the role of a HR professional (the closest circle to the individual) then which sector you work in is almost irrelevant to you, you can work in the charity sector or the hospitality sector. If you identify with working for a particular organisation, or even particular cause, but you don’t self-identify as part of the charity sector because your awareness only doesn’t extend that far, then should you be counted as a member of the charity sector? But if you self-identify with the sector (as I obviously do, writing a blog post about it), then you most definitely consider yourself part of the charity sector.

Concentric circles showing where people identify

I would suggest (counter to perhaps what the diagram looks like it might suggest) that there are far more people who work in the charity sector than those who self-identify as working in the charity sector. All those residential support workers who do amazing work supporting young people with autism. All those finance analysts and gardeners and developers and cleaners. We could (and should if we are being inclusive) consider all of these people as part of the charity sector, even if they don’t themselves.

So, the best way to improve the charity sector, for everyone who is part of it, is to make lots small improvements for the majority, for all those people who don’t take any notice of the sector and all those charities that just get on with providing services for people. This is where the minimum contribution occurs. This is where the strengthening is most needed. This is where we should focus our efforts for improving the sector. Making improvements for the small minority of visible people and organisations might look like it’s improving things, but if it doesn’t improve things for everyone, then is it really an improvement?

Watch the video version of this blog post.


Sources

Joris Gillet, Edward Cartwright, Mark Van Vugt. 2009. Leadership in a Weak-Link Game. School of Economics Discussion Papers. University of Kent.

Jack Hirshleifer. 1983. From weakest-link to best-shot: The voluntary provision of public goods. Public Choice, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, The Hague.

Arno Riedl, Ingrid M.T. Rohde, Martin Strobel. March, 2011. Efficient coordination in weakest-link games. Department of Economics, Maastricht University.

Dun Han and Xiang Li. 2019. How the weak and strong links affect the evolution of prisonerʼs dilemma game. New Journal of Physics.

Joel E. Cohen. 1998. Cooperation and self-interest: Pareto-inefficiency of Nash equilibria in finite random games. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Towards a stigmergy for third sector transformation

Create a stigmergy, not a strategy

Sector transformation doesn’t need a strategy. A strategy requires a single coordinated vision and centralised control. The sector doesn’t need that. It needs different thinking. So, instead of a strategy, the sector needs a stigmergy.

A stigmergy is a “mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action. Stigmergy enables complex, coordinated activity without any need for planning, control, communication, simultaneous presence, or even mutual awareness. The resulting self-organization is driven by a combination of positive and negative feedbacks, amplifying beneficial developments while suppressing errors” (Heylighen, 2015).

Originally a term was used in biology, and then the early 90’s saw the notion applied to other self-organising systems. Soon it became a useful model in a number of fields that attempt to understand self-organisation including artificial intelligence. A stigmergy offers an understanding of how to enable a self-organising movement to create change where no single vision for that change can either be agreed or coordinated. It offers a different way to consider change from our tendency to regard change as successful when everyone has agreed, actioned and conformed to the same change. It allows us to consider our notions of change more diversely and encompassing a range of actions, opinions and attitudes, to accept that perhaps change can be different in different circumstances but still be considered successful.

How can a stigmergy be created? Easy. Accept a diverse range of voices, opinions, ethics, values. Even those that at first glance appear in conflict with others. Don’t allow a single voice or opinion to dominate. Don’t look to leaders to make change happen. Avoid leadership in all it’s forms. Do lots of different things. Collaborate. Share. Co-create. Encourage everyone to look and listen to what is happening across the sector. Let simple, and even unconscious, ‘rules’ emerge from the actions and interactions people have. Let actions be seen by others, and responded to, creating feedback for the actors, and driving more action. From this others are inspired to act, to do their thing, sometimes in concert, sometimes in conflict. The positive actions, those that the sector accepts and amplifies through feedback loops gain ground whilst those attempts that fail become diminished and lost.

But…

Favour collectivism over individualism

Pandemic times have shown us that our society that prides itself on individualism (Hofstede, 2020). Every person that went to a crowded beach or didn’t wear a mask in a shop did so because they live in a society that, even if it doesn’t say so explicitly, values individual rights over collective responsibility.

Third sector people and organisations are no different. Individualism is ingrained in everyone one of us, every organisational strategy, every decision that each employee takes. It is how we have been trained to think. The Charity Commission’s rules on what makes a charity state that, “Your organisation’s ‘purpose’ is what it is set up to achieve… to be a charity your organisation must have charitable purposes only. It cannot have some purposes that are charitable and some that are not.” (Charity Commission, 2013). This tells charities that they have a legal obligation to look inwards, protect their own resources, focus on their individual mission. This is just one example (there are more) of the mindset that subtly compels organisations to prioritise their own (perceived) needs ahead of those of the sector, society or the whole world.

If the mission of all third sector organisations was to first ‘make the world better’; to save the planet, tackle the inequalities in society, etc… before then attending to their individual mission, then we’d see a very different third sector.

It’s easy to blame individuals. And why not, after all what is an organisation if not just a collection of individuals (Heath, 2020). But it’s important to remember that those individuals are as constrained by the systems of the sector and society and everyone else. Individualism is the problem, not the individuals. To think that change can be brought about by changing the individuals is to fall into Pirsig’s rationality trap.

Pirsig said, “But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.” If the systems that created that individual remain then another, similar, individual will come to replace them.

The problem is not the individual charities and third sector organisations either, the problem is the individualistic thinking that occurs in them. The established organisations are not the enemy of the sector, they are as much part of and victim of the worldview that the dominant voices of our society hold. Charity laws express that same thinking. The theoretical models applied to our economy express the same thinking. Individualism is deeply ingrained in our worldview.

How can a mindset be changed to be collectivist? Not so easy. It takes decades or even centuries to change the worldview of a society, but if ever there was a time to start that change, it is now. Charities and third sector organisations can think about the needs of other organisations along with their own. They can develop innovation eco-systems that work together and share resources. They can collaborate. Sometimes they can make self-sacrificing decisions that are better for communities or the environment. They can partner with other third sector organisations that might need support. They can think about whether the notion of a charity as focused on a single charitable purpose is really fit for the future.

Go forth and spontaneously act positively

To change the sector is to change society. To improve the sector is to make our society better. To lead the way is not a small task. But the third sector has a huge part to play in creating a better world. It cannot be left to politicians and billionaires, so who else is going to do it?


References

Heylighen, F. 2015. Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components. Cognitive Systems Research. Volume 38, June 2016, Pages 4-13.

About charitable purposes. 2013. What makes a charity (CC4). Charity Commission.

Heath. J. 2020. Methodological Individualism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Some thoughts on the Digital Charity Code of Practice

The internet is here and it isn’t going away. Our society is being digitised and there is no going back. Charities need to become ‘digital’. What might a truly digital charity look like? The answer is, we don’t know yet because it hasn’t happened, but broadly I’d say that a digital charity will be able to keep pace with change in society.

Becoming a digital charity offers new modes of operating. It isn’t just digitising existing ways of working, but completely transforming the business model and how they achieve their purpose. But its all about steps in the right direction. The Charity Digital Code of Practice can help charities think about what those steps might look like.

“The Charity Digital Code of Practice is for charity professionals looking to get more strategic with digital. The Code can help you figure out the key actions that your charity needs to take to stay relevant and increase your impact, efficiency and sustainability.”

The Code of Practice has seven elements. And I have some thoughts about how charities can look at each of them from a transformation perspective to consider the underlying models that inform the current way of doing things and what might emerge as new models.

Leadership

“Digital should be part of every charity leader’s skillset to help their organisation stay relevant, achieve its vision and increase its impact.”

New digital leaders

If you google ‘digital leaders’ you’ll find all kinds particularly unhelpful articles advising leaders to ‘transform people’ and ‘inspire teams’, and all seemingly based on the idea that being a digital leader is just like being a leader but digitally. Charities need leaders who understand that digital leadership requires an entirely new approach.

“Leadership models of the last century have been products of top-down, bureaucratic paradigms. These models are eminently effective for an economy premised on physical production but are not well-suited for a more knowledge-oriented economy. Complexity science suggests a different paradigm for leadership—one that frames leadership as a complex interactive dynamic from which adaptive outcomes (e.g., learning, innovation, and adaptability) emerge.” (Uhl-Biena, Marion, & McKelvey. 2007).

Peter Drucker made made the point that leadership practices were out of date more than twenty years ago. “As we advance deeper in the knowledge economy, the basic assumptions underlining much of what is taught and practiced in the name of management are hopelessly out of date… Most of our assumptions about business, technology and organization are at least 50 years old. They have outlived their time.” (Drucker, 1998).

And slightly more recently Manville and Ober highlighted how thinking from previous centuries still permeates our leadership and management thinking. “We’re in a knowledge economy, but our managerial and governance systems are stuck in the Industrial Era. It’s time for a whole new model.” (Manville & Ober, 2003).

Emergent and interactive leadership

Leaders having more knowledge and skills about digital ways of working, practices, tools and technologies, etc., is essential for charities to evolve, but if digital is just seen as a channel (same approach to marketing but do it on Facebook) or as technology (we got a new website, why haven’t online donations gone up) then that leadership will never transform the charity.

Internet-era leadership models will undoubtedly involve moving from a command-and-control, centralised approach to a decentralised and distributed approach, or as Uhl-Biena et al (2007) propose, “leadership should be seen not only as position and authority but also as an emergent, interactive dynamic—a complex interplay from which a collective impetus for action and change emerges when heterogeneous agents interact in networks in ways that produce new patterns of behavior or new modes of operating”. This complex systems thinking approach describes ‘leadership’ as an emergent property of the interactions within the system rather than as a characteristics of individuals. A practical example of this might be distributing decision-making authority to closer to where the information to make that decision is, rather than decision-making being held within a gate-keeping role of a small number of people.

Stan McCrystal, retired General and business solutions consultant is slightly more poetic about the type of leader required to succeed in complex and interconnected environment. “The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing. A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an “Eyes-On, Hands-Off” enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.” (McChrystal, 2015).

User Led

“Charities should make the needs and behaviours of beneficiaries and other stakeholders the starting point for everything they do digitally.”

A social model of user-led

To be user-led is to be strongly influenced by, in the case of charities, service-users and beneficiaries. “A user-led organisation is one where the people the organisation represents, or provides a service to, have a majority on the management committee or board, and where there is clear accountability to members and/or service users.” (Morris, 2006).

Morris roots this definition in the social model of disability (Shakespeare, 2010) that whilst considered outdated now introduced the idea that an individual impairment differs from the social construct of disability. In practical terms this was interpreted as ‘a person with an impairment is disabled by a society that doesn’t treat them fairly, they aren’t disabled by their impairment’. Although coming from the field of health and social care, the thinking broadly fits the wider charity context. A person’s need isn’t the problem, the problem is a society that puts barriers in the way of a person meeting that. Charities are a mechanism to overcome some of those barriers in society, but the charity itself can also become a barrier to people meeting their needs.

From paternalist to agentic

Where “clear accountability to members and/or service users” (Morris, 2006) doesn’t exist, an organisation cannot be said to be user-led and runs the risk of adopting a paternalistic approach to serving the needs if its beneficiaries. When a charity (and by that we mean the people who work for a charity) makes decisions it believes to be in the best interests of those it serves without involving them in those decisions it is expressing an attitude of superiority that reduces the agency and liberty of it’s beneficiaries (Dworkin, 2017). It is saying in effect that it knows what service-users need better then the service-users themselves.

Paternalism is a complex and multifaceted philosophical and ethical problem which we aren’t able to go into deeply here, but it is clear that paternalism perpetuates inequality (Schroeder, 2017). And if we agree that part of the role of all charities, regardless of cause, is to contribute towards a fairer society, then they must challenge the paternalist thinking, attitudes and practices that prevent charities from becoming user-led organisations.

Charities bring genuine expertise to bear on the issues that they tackle, and expertise holds a certain legitimate power which increases trust and voluntary cooperation. It is this that gives charities a unique and powerful place in the civic space, but that power should be balanced by transparency and be subject to public scrutiny in order to ensure beneficiaries

What’s digital about all of this? Nothing, if you think digital is about websites and social media, but everything when you understand that digital is about reinventing the ways we think about things in the 21st century to replace outdated modes and models. Charities will need to become more user-led as they become more digital.

Culture

Charities’ values, behaviours and ways of working should create the right environment for digital success.”

The amalgamation of the values

Wherever people get together, culture develops. Seth Godin describes culture as “People like us do things like this“. Organisational culture is what we call the amalgamation of the values, assumptions, and most importantly, behaviour in the workplace. It gives those who experience it a sense of inclusion and belonging.

Flamholtz and Randle (2011) talk about an organisational culture being either strong or weak, where a “strong culture is one that people clearly understand and can articulate” and a “weak culture is one that employees have difficulty defining, understanding, or explaining.” They equate their definition of a strong culture with alignment to organisational values that results in cohesiveness between teams and departments, higher motivation and loyalty, greater coordination and control, and various other things that are of benefit to the organisation.

But we should question whether that idea of a strong culture is rooted in the concept of an organisation as a hierarchy with command-and-control (as above in the leadership section), and that if a charity, as it becomes more digital, moves towards a decentralised and distributed model perhaps the need for a ‘strong’ organisational culture as Flamholtz and Randle define it becomes a hindrance to flexibility and adaptability. Kotter and Heskett (2008) describe ‘adaptive cultures’ as those which can take risks and absorb change more easily than unadaptive cultures, and that this is a route to organisational effectiveness.

A network of subcultures and microcultures

Schein (2013) says “With the changes in technological complexity, the leadership task has changed. Leadership in a networked organization is a fundamentally different thing from leadership in a traditional hierarchy”, and talks about culture being made up from lots of subcultures and microcultures. All of these different smaller cultures within an organisation interact in a network of people connecting with those that they find commonalities with, and then those groups connect with other groups with shared values. It is this bottom-up approach to culture emerging more organically than when defined by a top-down hierarchical approach that Schein describes.

The network of subcultures and microcultures that form within the organisation benefit from the strength of weak ties. Granovetter (1973) describes weak ties as being bridges which allow us to disseminate and get access to information that we might not otherwise have access to. As information flows through networks far more quickly than in hierarchies, and as networks can act as ‘load-balancers‘ to distribute information via other routes if one becomes blocked, a network model serves the culture of a digital charity by facilitating faster decision-making, communicating valued behaviours, and .

So, culture is an important aspect for digital charities, but what we mean by culture in a digital age can’t just be imported from a non-digital mode of thinking. Culture needs to be rethought and redesigned for the internet-era.

Strategy

“Charities’ strategies should be ambitious about how they use digital to achieve their vision and mission. This could mean investing money, but it definitely means thinking creatively about how digital can increase impact, reach and sustainability.”

Digital takes strategy up a level

Whatever digital does in supporting in the creation and implementation of a strategy to achieve the vision and mission of a charity, digital will have to take strategy up a level to become about redefining the business model of digital charities to ensure their continued existence and ability to operate effectively in the internet-era. Digital thinking changes the nature of strategy, it turns the concept of using past patterns to create future plans (Mintzberg, 1988) on its head, it forces an embracing of the uncertainties of modern times, and changes how to approach dealing with constant fact-paced change.

In order to respond to this increasing uncertainty and speed of change charities will need to develop new business models and new ways of working that can not only respond to change but leverage it for their advantage.

From pipelines to platforms

First, the business models of digital charities. Business models can be thought of as the missing link between strategy and business processes and describe “how a business works, the logic that creates its value” (Osterwalder & Pigneur, 2002). The important part of the phrase is “creates its value”. That’s what every organisation on the planet aims to do, it’s why people forms into groups, its all to create value that otherwise would not have existed. Charities are the same, they are all about creating value for the people they engage with and society as a whole. The business models that create the most value in the internet-era will be platform-based.

All of the current non-digital business models that charities use are pipeline-based. Fundraising brings the money into one end of the pipeline, it is used to enable some kind of processing, for example paying the people at the charity to deliver a service, and then out the other end of the pipe come the outputs, in this case people using the charity’s services and getting value from it.

In its simplest terms a platform business model enables all of those on the platform to both contribute and benefit. It’s easy to think of a platform as technology based because that’s what we’ve come to know from using the likes of Facebook where we contribute by post our stuff and we benefit by seeing other people’s stuff, but the concept of platforms as a business model isn’t limited to technology. Lots of the concepts that we use in platforms, ideas like network effects and feedback loops, we wouldn’t have learned without internet technologies (Choudary, 2013) but it’s important to be able to abstract the concepts away from the tech. A platform creates value for both contributors and consumers through connecting their contributions and consumption’s.

From mono-structure services to service components

Having a platform business model requires a service-orientated business architecture (This is the business processes part that Osterwalder mentioned above). And this relies on another digital mindset shift, away from building a mono-structure provision/offering/service that has all of the elements it needs contained within it but only usable by that service, to creating smaller independent interconnected components of services (Watts, 2017) that can be connected to create a new offering and also reused in other services. This service-oriented approach to business architecture means that once a means of handling appointments, for example, has been built, any other provision needing to allow people to book appointments can use the component. In the mono-structure approach every service offering would have its own means of booking appointments which makes their interoperability almost impossible. As the charity build and connects more of these capabilities their platform business model grows.

From long term planning to rapid iteration cycles

Where digital has caused charities to shift their business model towards platforms and their business processes and architecture towards component capabilities, it will also require that charities change their approach to planning and delivery (the part that most people call strategy). The traditional approach to strategic planning is for senior managers to engage in creating five year plans (often justified because it takes that long for an organisation to change isn’t direction even slightly) and then the rest of the organisation to work on implementing it.

Digital moves charities away from long term strategies towards rapid cycles of planning, implementing, and receiving feedback to guide the next cycle. The goal can be the same but how you get there is very different. The world changes far too quickly to expect a strategy that makes sense now to still be effective in years to come, so charities need to establish these ways of working that enable them to create things in small chunks that deliver value quickly, receive feedback, and iterate on what they’ve learned about the users needs.

So we’ve looked at how digital will cause three shifts in how charities approach strategy; from pipelines to platforms, from mono-structure services to service components, and from long term planning to rapid iteration cycles. I could go on, but that’s probably enough for now.

Skills

Charities should aim for digital skills to be represented at all levels of the organisation. Digital success is dependent on the confidence, motivation and attitude of the people who run, work and volunteer for charities. Technical skills are important, but equally so are softer skills such as influencing, questioning and creativity.”

The trend of fewer people with higher skills

There is a recognised trend in how technology adoption leads to a demand for higher skilled workers and so higher wages (Goldin and Katz 1995). As charities adopt more digital technologies the types of skills required will shift towards more technological proficiency and it is essential that skill development keeps pace with technology adoption to prevent charities from falling into the trap of having technologies that are not used to their fullest potential.

As the Code of Practice points out, the skills needed by those working in digital charities are not only technical, there are also a wide range of communication and collaboration, interpersonal and decision-making, critical and creative thinking skills among many others. Charities find it challenging to recruit people with specialist skill sets (NCVO, 2019) and it seems likely they will find it increasingly so. This, along with many other factors make it likely that as the charity sector becomes more digital it will have a smaller workforce of highly skilled generalists.

Investing in knowledge over investing in capital.

As charities become increasingly digital and more a part of the knowledge economy they will have to make very different investment decisions to their non-digital counterparts. Instead of large investments in buildings they will be investing more in developing the knowledge, skills and abilities of their workforce in order to achieve their missions in increasingly digital ways. This will require a shift (yes, another one) in thinking for the finance function in charities as the large initial outlays with diminishing returns over time are replaced with ongoing outlays with increasing returns over time.

Charity knowledge workers, whatever their role, will have two jobs: learn, and integrate that learning into the organisation. And charities will have to recognise that the learning has to be part of how a person spends their time at work and that the expectation of people developing their skills in their own time increases inequality and reduces the opportunities for people with children and caring responsibilities to succeed in their role and progress their career.

Team as the unit of delivery

Digital charities will realise the benefits of problem-focused multi-disciplinary teams rather than functional departments for their ability to adapt quickly and tackle new problems. The acceptance that no problem a charity faces can be dealt with by the marketing team or the HR team, for example, will encourage the adoption of ‘the team as the unit of delivery’ (Arnold, 2012), and this will allow for a greater diversity in how skills are spread across a team. The question of whether a person has the requisite skills will be replaced by whether the team has the skills. This focus on the team will also encourage replacing measuring individual performance with team performance (Meyer, 1994).

Managing Risks & Ethics

Charities need to determine and manage any risks involved in digital. Charities will also need to consider how some digital issues fit with organisational values. They will need to plan how digital may impact all areas of their work.”

Recognising the risks from bad actors

Digital changes the nature of the risks charities face and how they respond to them. Gone are the days of thinking as risks as some quantifiable with a severity by likelihood score. Risks in the digital age are unpredictable, change quickly, and can have vastly out-scaled consequences. So before a charity manage any risks involved in digital, it first need to change its relationship with risk.

Pre-digital awareness of risk is mostly centred around acts and omissions made by the charity. Risk management becomes far more complex as charities become more digital and requires an outward looking approach with an increased awareness of the far greater risks posed by external bad actors. They will appreciate that their services are open to misuse and will adopt red teaming practices to uncover these risks and mitigate against them.

Ethical framework for making decisions

Doing good doesn’t automatically correlate with being good. Ethics has to be worked at. As digital creates a greater need for transparency charities need to develop an ethical framework for making decisions. An ethical framework is not a code or conduct, it doesn’t provide answers but it can facilitate discussion and help charities agree the lines they will not cross. Whether lines those are around introducing automated decision-making technology or agreeing a contract with a corporate partner, having a framework that allows for or even requires an ethical discussion will be essential for digital charities. An organisation cannot have ethics. It can have an ethical framework that helps the people in that organisation express and discuss their ethics but ethics can only be held within a person.

Ethics are complicated. There are no easy answers. Charities can choose to adopt more ethical approaches (Ainsworth, 2018) (by which I mean making ethical considerations an active part of their decision-making, not to suggest that charities knowingly make decision the average person might consider unethical) , they can sign up for voluntary codes of ethics, but as we have seen from from data protection over the last few years, its legislation and the threat of fines that motivates change.

Adaptability

Charities will need to adapt to survive and thrive as digital changes how everyone lives and works.”

Adaptability seems like a curious thing to be on the code, but also an essential thing. Charities will have to be adaptable in order to adopt more digital, and as a digital charity they’ll have to adapt even more as they attempt to keep pace with the changes in society.

For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to equate adaptability with innovativeness. Our dominant model for innovation includes ideas about disruption, first-mover advantage, and winner-take-all business models that aim to monopolise a market. These come from the the thinking of an economist called Schumpeter, who in the nineteen thirties coined to term ‘creative destruction’ (Schumpeter, 1934) when talking about innovation. He was thinking about how America should deal with the Great Depression but as we often do, the ideas were taken on and applied in different situations, most notably Silicon Valley, without being reconsidered as to whether they are still applicable given what we now know. The creative destruction model for innovation isn’t the only model, and probably isn’t the best model for charities.

Perhaps charities could develop a more evolutionary approach to innovation, one that takes account of what went before, learns from it and builds on top of it rather than trying to destroy and replace it. Charities, and the charity sector, can indeed be innovative if they aren’t being measured by a definition that doesn’t fit them. They can learn to be adaptable through approaching innovation as being in a perpetual state of change and growth, embracing uncertainty and accepting that the spirit of innovation, as part of the digital mindset, is a good thing to have. It takes the “We’ve always done it this way” focus on the ‘how’ and changes it to “This is why we do it, and we can do it lots of different ways” to focus on the why, because when you know you can achieve the same thing in lots of different ways adapting to any of them becomes the usual way of working.

Into the future

The Charity Digital Code of Practice is a helpful step in the journey charities need to take in thinking and doing more digitally. Over the next few years (well, decades really) I hope charities will adopt more of a digital mindset and redesign everything about themselves with the goal of keeping pace with a digital society.

It’s going to be an exciting future.


References

Uhl-Biena, M., Marion, R. & McKelvey, B. (2007) Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly. Volume 18, Issue 4, August 2007, Pages 298-318. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2007.04.002

Drucker P.F. (1998). Management’s new paradigms. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/forbes/1998/1005/6207152a.html

Manville, B., and J. Ober, J. (2003). Beyond empowerment: Building a company of citizens. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2003/01/beyond-empowerment-building-a-company-of-citizens

McChrystal, S. (2015). Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. Penguin UK. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/317066/team-of-teams-by-general-stanley-mcchrystal-tantum-collins-david-silverman-and-chris-fussell/

Morris, J. (2006). Centres for Independent Living / Local user-led organisations: A discussion paper. http://community.lincolnshire.gov.uk/Files/Community/847/Centres_for_Independent_Living_A_Discussion_Document_Jenny_Morris_2006.pdf

Shakespeare, T. (2010) The Social Model of Disability. https://icpla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Shakespeare-T.-The-Social-Model-of-Disability.-p.-195-203..pdf

Dworkin, G. (2017). Paternalism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://community.lincolnshire.gov.uk/Files/Community/847/Centres_for_Independent_Living_A_Discussion_Document_Jenny_Morris_2006.pdf

Schroeder, J. (2017) The Paradox of Helping: Endorsing for Others What We Oppose for Ourselves. Behavioral Scientist. https://behavioralscientist.org/paradox-helping-endorsing-others-oppose/

Godin, S. (2017) People like us (do things like this) Change a culture, change your world. https://seths.blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/2017-people-like-us.pdf

Flamholtz, E. and Randle, Y. (2011) Corporate Culture: The Ultimate Strategic Asset. Stanford University Press. http://www.groundswelldiagnostics.com/pdfs/Stanford%20Press_Flamholtz.material.pdf

Kotter, J. P. and Heskett, J L. (2008) Corporate Culture and Performance. Simon and Schuster. https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Corporate-Culture-and-Performance/John-P-Kotter/9781451655322

Schein, E. (2013) Organizational Culture and Leadership. Hypertextual.com

Granovetter, M. S. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 78, No. 6. https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~jure/pub/papers/granovetter73ties.pdf

Henry Mintzberg, H. (1988). Crafting strategy. Havard Business Review. http://www1.ximb.ac.in/users/fac/Amar/AmarNayak.nsf/0/943f73332233d6e0652576a3004b26e7/$FILE/Crafting Strategy.pdf

Osterwalder, A and Pigneur, Y. (2002). An eBusiness Model Ontology for Modeling eBusiness. BLED 2002 Proceedings. 2. http://aisel.aisnet.org/bled2002/2

Choudary, S. P. (2013) Why Business Models Fail: Pipes vs. Platforms. https://www.wired.com/insights/2013/10/why-business-models-fail-pipes-vs-platforms/

Watts, S. (2017). What is SOA? Service-Oriented Architecture Explained. https://www.bmc.com/blogs/service-oriented-architecture-overview/

Owen, M. (2018) Goodbye to strategic planning. Hello to ‘agile’ strategy! https://stratminder.wordpress.com/2018/03/20/goodbye-to-strategic-planning-hello-to-agile-strategy/

Goldin, C. & Katz, L. (1995) The Decline of Non-Competing Groups: Changes in the Premium to Education, 1890 to 1940. NBER, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

NCVO. (2019). Planning for tomorrow’s workforce. https://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2019/08/22/skills-gaps-in-charities-findings-from-our-latest-research-briefing/

Arnold, J. (2012). What we’ve learnt about scaling agile. Government Digital Service. https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2012/10/26/what-weve-learnt-about-scaling-agile/

Meyer, C. (1994). How the Right Measures Help Teams Excel. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1994/05/how-the-right-measures-help-teams-excel

Ainsworth, D. (2018) Are charities as ethical as they should be? Civic Society. https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/voices/david-ainsworth-are-charities-as-ethical-as-they-should-be.html

Schumpeter, J. (1934) The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle. Harvard Economic Studies.

A broad strategy for digital transformation of the charity sector using six questions

Where are we now and why can’t we stay here?

Behind the curve

The charity sector’s use of digital is far behind the curve of society.

The blue line represents the diffusion of innovation (Everett, 1962) across society. To the far left are the early adopters of new technologies, with the majority of people in the middle, and the laggards to the right where the blue line meets the black zero line. This includes the adoption of all kinds of innovation, but mostly those we refer to as ‘digital’, from using Uber to watching Netflix to buying the latest iPhone. All of these innovations go through this adoption curve.

The green line represents the charity sector’s adoption of ‘digital’. It follows the same curve as the blue line and shows how some charities are early adopters and some are laggards. If we wanted an example we could look at charity sector websites using responsive design. When responsive design first became a possibility businesses with customers that were beginning to adopt multi- device behaviors would have been the first to redesign their websites so that it could be viewed on any device. Some time later the first few charity sector organisations would have redesigned their websites to be responsive, then more until the majority were responsive, and to today where the laggards are still yet to make their websites responsive to different devices.

The orange area represents the people in society that are adopting the innovation at the same time the charity sector is using it. The further behind the curve of society that the charity sector is, the fewer people there are to engage with. 

The white area within the green line represents the total lost opportunity from the charity sector using that innovation. 

A risk-averse approach of waiting for a dominant design to emerge (Utterback and Abernathy, 1975) and be adopted by the majority before using the innovation reduces the overall number of people that can be engaged with.

Given the increasing pace (McGrath, 2019) at which new innovations are introduced it’s likely that the charity sector will fall further behind over time.

Where do we want to get to and why is it the right place to go?

Keeping pace with change

The charity sector needs to get to the position where it can keep pace with the rate of innovation adoption in society.

The orange area shows the increased number of people (compared to the diagram above) available for the charity sector to engage with through newly adopted innovations if the charity sector is closer to the adoption curve of society.

The adoption curve shows that not every organisation in the charity sector has to adopt new innovations at the same time. Individual organisations can make reasoned decisions about if and when to adopt a particular digital technology or practice as long as the sector as a whole has some early adopters exploring the new innovations shortly after wider society begins to.

If we accept the assumption that the charity sector serves the needs of society through connecting people, essentially acting as a resource distribution mechanism, then the more people that can be engaged to provide resources (money, time, skills, etc.) and the more people that can be engaged to utilise those resources to improve their lives, the better our society becomes. Keeping pace with change in society enables the charity sector to better serve society.

How are we going to get there and why is this the right way to do it?

From investing in capital to investing in knowledge

Capital investment and return involves large upfront investment with diminishing returns over time. Knowledge investment requires ongoing investment with increasing returns over time.

The red line shows investment and return in capital resources such as buildings and purchased technologies which require considerable upfront spend with diminishing returns over time. The pink line shows the investment and returns for investment in knowledge, including regular formal training and informal upskilling which require more constant (and probably increasing) investment with increasing returns as the knowledge is applied. For illustrative purposes, both the investment and return are shown as single lines.

As has been demonstrated (Goldin and Katz, 1998) technology adoption (in an organisation and a sector) usually results in the distribution of ‘number of people’ and ‘level of digital skill’ shifting from more people with lower skill levels to fewer people with higher levels of skills.

Knowledge can only be held within people, hence an investment in knowledge is an investment in people. Some tacit knowledge can be codified as transmissible information to pass onto others. People with more knowledge about digital innovation are better able to respond to changes and ensure the sector keeps pace with society.

From being tied to technology to using loosely coupled products

Being constrained to enterprise technologies offered by well-established companies because of the presumed reliability they provide will shift as confidence in the security, reliability, usability, speed of deployment and interconnectivity of new consumer-focused products grows.

Charity sector organisations have often struggled to make technology choices that allow them to use new innovations in microservices architecture, jamstack principles and no-code products. As an example, the dream of having one large CRM to enable better data-driven fundraising only works if data quality is a reality. The shift away from ‘one big system’ could allow fundraising teams to adopt their own lightweight CRM products knowing that when a better product is launched next year there will be an API that can pass data between them and enable the fundraising team to quickly adopt a new product. As a new breed of products begins to appear that are designed to allow organisations to cross the boundaries into the digital spaces of people outside the organisation, charity sector organisations will expand their thinking about how they use technology products.

Charity sector organisations will become more comfortable with the low commitment ‘sign-up quickly and throwaway when a replacement comes along’ approach to using technology products just as consumers across society are.

From delivering projects, products and services to developing business models

From optimised-for-production pipelines of projects, products and services charity sector organisations will move to developing optimised-for-consumption platform business models that facilitate self-reinforcing value exchanges.

These platform business models will be part of open innovation ecosystems that share resources and make the boundaries of organisations more permeable in the pursuit of keeping pace with the innovation adoption in society.

References

Everett, M. R. (1962) Diffusion of Innovation. The Free Press. A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 866 Third Avenue, New York.

Goldin, C. & Katz, L. (1995) The Decline of Non-Competing Groups: Changes in the Premium to Education, 1890 to 1940. NBER, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Utterback J. M. & Abernathy W. J. (1975) A dynamic Model of Process and Product Innovation. The Journal of Management Science.

McGrath, R. G. (2013 UPDATED 2019) The Pace of Technology Adoption is Speeding Up. Harvard Business Review.

Artificial intelligence in the charities of the future

AI is coming. 

The experts estimate a true artificial intelligence will be created between 2040 and 2075.

We’re not talking about machine learning algorithms that can write short stories that are indistinguishable from those written by humans. We’re talking about actual artificial intelligence that will be able to reason and make decisions of its own volition without being asked to.

The military will probably get it first.They always have the coolest toys first and have the fattest wallet. They’ll be quickly followed by large corporations and very quickly followed by every other type of organisation. That’s how technology adoption and diffusion goes, and AI will be the mother of all general purpose technologies, which will ensure its adoption is fast and total. If you think electricity (the last big general purpose technology to be invented) changed the world, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And in amongst all those other organisations racing to leverage the benefits AI will bring their businesses will also be charities.

The first charities to use artificial intelligence will probably start with AI-HR and AI-Finance because those will be mass-market systems that every organisation needs and so the market will be flooded with functional AI tools that can support departments to meet the business needs.

Then marketing and content production will be taken over by AI systems that can quickly create a huge number of variations of promotional materials and learn very quickly which work for achieving the AI’s aims.

Fundraising, support services, service delivery, strategy all will be affected by AI technologies and over time replace human teams that have no chance of competing.

There’ll be the first ‘AI-first’ charities, just as we have charities talking about being ‘digital-first’ now. 

Of course those people in the charities that are making the decisions to adopt AI technologies wont be experts in AI, anymore than the people who adopt today’s IT systems know how they work. These will be people with experience in dealing with human motivations and technology that doesn’t answer back. How will they motivate artificial intelligence to make good decisions?

Until it’s the AI making the decisions about what it will do. And we have the first ‘AI-only’ charities. With the click of a button the AI will set-up an ‘AI-Org’ (and yes, there will be a legal organisational type for AI companies by then), decide what cause it wants to contribute towards to help the puny humans, develop a business model, decide it doesn’t need to hire any humans to do its work, and set about making the world a better place.

AI will be everywhere. It will be in everything.

I’m sure the few people that read this will be thinking, “I’ve got more immediate things to worry about than some possible future that won’t happen until after I’m dead.”, and that’s a completely reasonable thought. I think about solutions in increasing orders of magnitude, so we should be implementing solutions on a 1 – 2 year time scale, investigating solutions for in 10 – 20 years, and imagining solutions for in 100 – 200 years time. 

AI, and its effect on the charity sector is in the ‘imagining solutions’ time frame. Charities definitely have enough problems to be working on over the next 1 – 2 years (pandemics, economic collapse, institutional racism, etc.), and even enough problems to be investigating for the 10 – 20 year time frame (the ongoing digitalisation of society, climate change, etc.) but just as our charities of today have been shaped by the decisions of those from the 18th, 19th and 20th century, we shouldn’t under-estimate how our decisions today will affect how the charities of the future respond to artificial intelligence.