The ethics of platform philanthropy
This week I did:
Higher fidelity supersedes lower fidelity
It has been a week of prototyping, user testing, and getting into the details of how processes will work, what API’s need to do, what content do we need, and how we use messaging to communicate expectations and responsibilities. Understanding young people’s expectations as they use our products is really important for how we communicate (in the holistic sense) there and our responsibilities to create a safe community.
Free School Meals
I had an idea about using tax relief claims from working at home as donations to charities tackling child poverty so I set up a page on my website and sent some tweets. I’m not a fundraiser or digital communications expert, and don’t have much of a following on Twitter, but it felt really uncomfortable putting myself out there with something like this. I usually get to hid behind websites. I don’t know how charity fundraisers do it every day.
I had a buddy chat with Bobi from Be More Digital. It’s the first time I’ve done anything like it but it was good fun. I think of it as part of the stigmergy for achieving the digital transformation of the charity sector, which is clearly such a big and complex thing that it can’t be achieved using a strategy, which would require centralised coordination.
What Nokia got wrong
I’ve been working on my assignment for the Innovation Management and Policy module of my Masters. It’s an analysis of how Nokia went from the market leader in the mobile phone industry to losing it all to Apple, Google, Samsung, etc. It’s not part of my assignment but I think the game Snake had a lot to do with the adoption and dominance of Nokia phones.
200 Digital Tools
I added the 200th digital tool to my list this week. There are still lots more I want to add, and I’ve been thinking about what to do with the list as it grows. One of my ideas is about joining up different products into different business model workflows. I have no idea what this would look like yet other than a curate shortcut to picking the right tools and products for setting up side-projects and small business ventures.
I joined the Visualize Value community “of 1,300 builders and makers focused on increasing their value by creating valuable things.” as part of exploring business models. I’m not interested in building a business, I am interested in building business models.
And I read:
Conditions for Collaboration
Conditions for Collaboration - Part 2: the role of shared infrastructure by Nick Stanhope is a call for shared infrastructure and collaborative working. But there is tension between a strategy for such working which says that a single coordinated approach that says 50 digital maturity tools is too many lets pick one, and stigmergy, an approach that doesn’t require a centralised coordinated approach but transmits signals for others to follow and says 50 digital maturity tools allows far greater usage and application. Does what tool you use matter if they all get to where you want to go?
Our Digital Future
“Over recent months many of us have been talking a lot about the impact the COVID pandemic has had on the adoption of digital ways of doing things in healthcare. I say adoption rather than transformation because I have a view that we have not, by and large, transformed the way we deliver services or pathways. What we have done at a large scale is adopt ‘digital’ tools to replace physical interventions with virtual ones.” I wholeheartedly agree with Toby’s point of view, and his thoughts around building digital as a core competency in organisations to redesign what those organisations do and how they do it for the modern age.
Edtech’s Answer to Remote Learning Burnout
This in-depth analysis and prediction for the EdTech space from A16Z is really interesting for anyone with anything to do with online education, or ‘education’, as it’s called in the 21st Century.
The Great Reset
I began reading some of the articles from Time’s The Great Reset, a website about “the kind of future we want. TIME partnered with the World Economic Forum to ask leading thinkers to share ideas for how to transform the way we live and work.” There are some really interesting things to think about, including how Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, want to discuss the State of the Digital World and use their fame and influence to encourage people to listen to experts. I think we’ve learned over the past few months with Coronavirus and decades with Climate Change that people don’t listen to experts so it seems there is a need for intermediaries to facilitate the communication.
And thought about:
The Block Web
I wondered a while ago why websites are conceived or and set up to work like old paper documents and how this limits what we can do with the contents of those pages. And now we see products like Notion which are built around the idea of blocks, each of which have their own ID and which are used to build up pages. The future I imagine for these blocks is where they become the default for embedding and referencing content on web pages. An example might be where one website mentions the price of a product on another website, and if that price changes on the original website it is automatically changed on the mentioning website because it linked to the block with the price.
What to do with all the digital litter
How much of the internet digital storage is taken up by google site pages I started and never used, Evernote pages I’ll never look at again, records in databases for websites I forgot I created an account for. What do we do about this increasing digital litter?
And got recorded by Twitter as an impression for:
Newsletter Operating System
Janal tweeted, ” Launching pre-orders for my first info product. This one’s for newsletter writers. Problem: Managing a newsletter is time-consuming. Solution: I’ve created a dashboard that helps save you hours in the curation, writing & growth process” It’s great to see more people launching digital products like this, and it’s interesting to me to think about the business models that are being used. The most difficult part of the models seems to be the marketing and promotion. Producing is easy by comparison. But in the attention economy, getting people to take notice and take action is more of a challenge.
How I attracted 20,000+ visitors on a Notion page in 5 months
Felix Wong tweeted, “I thought VirtualMojito.com is just another silly idea. Now, this has become a project I like to work on every minute.“, which is another curation-as-a-service product using nocode. I find these kinds of side-project business models hugely fascinating.
Ethics of Algorithms
Mariarosaria Taddeo tweeted, “Check out ‘The Ethics of Algorithms: Key Problems and Solutions’ our paper on the ethics of algorithms“, which is on my reading list and, given the impact unethical algorithms are having/will have on our lives, should probably be on everyone’s reading list…
This week I did:
Uncertainty to certainty
It’s been a really productive week at work. My focus has been on trying to encourage discussions and force decisions to make uncertain things certain. It’s meant asking some awkward questions like, “if you had to choose between those two things you said were both priorities, which would you pick?”, but feels like it’s drawing out some principles which we’re using to create models and frameworks that guide decisions. And so we’re getting close to the point of defining the scope of work for the developers to get on with. It makes me think about Basecamp’s hill chart concept as one that visualises how uncertain or certain a particular thing is. I keep looking for other metaphors and ways of communicating how much more thinking needs to be done to get a thing to the point of definition where it can be communicated clearly in writing or images or maps and so is ready to roll down the other side of the hill.
Swam in sea
I went to the beach and swam in the sea. In October. In the rain. It felt amazing. It didn’t feel cold at all. If I lived closer to the sea I’d do it every day. It’s probably one of my highlights of the year.
Back to studying
Term started this week so I’ve been reading for the ‘Innovation Policy and Management’ and ‘Business Research Methods’ modules. Both look like really interesting topics and although the lectures got off to a bumpy start (part of me thinks a major university really should have figured out online education by now and another part of me thinks that it shows just how out of their depth universities are) I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve also started thinking about my dissertation which will probably be about understanding the innovation models used in the charity sector.
Micro business models
I’ve been thinking about micro-business models; very small, easily testable implementations of what could be a full scale business model. Making them really small makes them easier to understand and articulate and the two I’ve done this week are around creating shortcuts for people that they pay a small amount for to have access to something they can leverage for large benefit to themselves. The micro-business model I’m thinking of includes: Idea, Premise, Hook, Production, Distribution.
The first one is: Create Twitter lists → Sell lists on Gumroad → Get people instantly connected to over a hundred experts in a particular field or topic. In this model the payment is one-off but value is ongoing if the customer subscribes to the list and uses it proactively.
The second is: Pay £5 a month (unless than paying £2 a week to do the lottery) to join a distribution list (SMS or Whatsapp) → Every day I’ll listen to the radio for ‘the phrase that pays’ and I’ll send it to you → You enter your phone number on the radio station website to enter the competition → If the radio station calls you, you say the phrase and win a large amount of money. In this model the payment is regular and there are two value points, one where I’m making it easier and cheaper for the customer to enter the competition (that entry costs 25p a day whereas if you enter by texting the radio station it will cost £2 every time you enter), and then there is the possible value of winning £50,000.
The third I’ve been thinking about but haven’t done yet is (because it isn’t very micro, it wuld be a lot of work): Read, interpret and review academic papers on topics such as innovation → Write educative articles that encapsulate the concepts and connections in the paper (something papers don’t do very well themselves, they generally only reference other articles to prove their own points) → Create summary Twitter threads for each article with a link → Use OnlyTweets to collect subscription payments for access to the threads.
Clearly, the thing missing from all of these examples is any kind of growth/marketing model, but I’ll think about that later.
And I read:
Reflections on a systemically-informed service to disrupt criminal exploitation
This is amazing. “The Children’s Society’s work to develop a systemically-informed service to disrupt child criminal exploitation” includes inspiring statements like, “develop hypotheses and a portfolio of experiments to try and change ‘the system’ at the point of arrest” and “The words complicated and complex are often used interchangeably. But systems theorists will tell you they have very different meanings, with huge implications for how you interact with these systems”, and “The words complicated and complex are often used interchangeably. But systems theorists will tell you they have very different meanings, with huge implications for how you interact with these systems”. I’m a big believer in the idea that the only way to make a change in anything is to go deep to understand the systems and structures and go wide to understand the cultural and social impacts. I think The Children’s Society approach to systems-informed thinking places them at the leading edge of positive change in society.
The hinge of history
I’ve been reading about the idea of the Hinge of History, that now is the most influential period of time ever and will have a profound effect on the future of the human race.
- BBC Future: Are we living at the ‘hinge of history’?
- Are we living at the most influential time in history?
- Will MacAskill on whether now is the hinge of history
Whether now is the exact moment of the hinge of history seems unimportant (well, perhaps not unimportant but unknowable). What is important is our increasing understanding of tipping points, scalability, network effects, exponential growth, and how natural and social systems can experience massive effects from small causes (which differs from our old conception of cause and effect where the effect was within the same order of magnitude as the cause).
The key role of the charity digital lead
I read The Catalysts article looking “at the growing number of charities employing dedicated digital leads – and whether this trend is key to strengthening the sector’s digital capabilities.” It’s interesting to me for two reasons; one it seems based in research not opinion, and two, it explicitly challenges the narrative around ‘digital should be in every part of the charity’, which of course it should, but the challenge is in how to get there. This article calls out the need for people with a digital mindset and and a digital focus in their work. The other narrative I often hear around digital is that the word shouldn’t be used in job titles. That might be appropriate for digitally mature organisations (if there is such a thing) but I think using the ‘D’ word as much as possible is part of bringing about change in organisations to challenge old thinking and ways of doing.
Once you have a certain amount of context, some solutions to problems become obvious even if you haven’t yet worked through the logical steps to arrive at that solution. Is it ok to jump ahead or should you trust more in the discipline of the process to prove step-by-step that its the right solution?
I’ve been trying out a few different tools for bringing new things into my awareness, what someone I can’t remember called a ‘serendipity engine’. The idea is around get a focused but diverse range of content to keep a steady flow of ideas developing. I use Twitter to follow interesting people, Email newsletters to get medium-form content on subjects I’m interested in, PMAlerts to find things on Twitter (and a few other places) that are outside my usual sphere, and Tentacle to get alerted when certain blogs publish new posts. The problem is that as the number of inputs increases the engine gets clogged and reduces serendipity because I have to make choices about which to read based on previous performance, which is not the way to allow for serendipity.
The axioms of charity x the axioms of digital = ?
What are the axioms (self-evident truths and generally accepted statements) of charity (the concept, the sector and the type of organisation)? The “Definitions and Axioms Relative to Charity, Charitable Institutions, and the Poor’s Laws” from the eighteenth century is interesting but not really what I’m looking for, so here are some ideas of my own: Charities are connected to a single (although sometime quite broad) cause only. Charities select an insurmountable challenge to ensure their continued existence. Charities organise people around the mission.
And what are the axioms of digital? Maybe: Digital technology relies on the internet. Digital mindset utilises the knowledge and thinking about how the internet works. Not sure, needs more work.
I wonder what you’d get if you built up from merging those two sets of axioms so that ‘charity’ and ‘digital’ are so deeply intertwined that we get the first truly digitally-native charity.
Digital charity showcase
I’ve been thinking about whether a showcase website of digital projects, products and services from charities might be useful, is there a problem to solve there, is it something worth spending time on. I started playing with some charity data and API’s from the Charity Commission and CharityBase and I’ve been wondering if I could make my Digital Tools list more charity focused, perhaps almost as some kind of guide. I’m not sure if or how these things are connected but I’ll keep some notes about them in my workspace and see if anything develops in the future.
Some people tweeted:
Tamara tweeted, “Ethical design inspires trust and can be the difference between someone engaging with your mission and forgetting you all together. It involves:
- Informed consent
- Voluntary participation
This feels like a really important point. My thinking about ethics is that we can’t adopt fixed positions but we can negotiate and make choices about what is important to us, and it’s that questioning to reach what we think is the right decision that makes something like website design ethical or not. To say, our website is ethical because we did x, y, z, but have not questioned and discussed whether the ethical choices made by someone else and copied as some kind of ‘best practice’, are really right for the audience of the website, isn’t ethical to me. Ethics requires questioning things like ‘how much should we design the UI to direct users to take actions and how much should we give free choice?’.
Why bad news works in fundraising
Jeff Brooks tweeted, “Why bad news works in fundraising“, with a link to his article in which he says, “People are more responsive to problems and enemies than to happy, fully resolved situations. They grasp what you’re saying more easily and quickly. The impression is deeper. The motivation to respond is stronger.” It makes a certain amount intuitive sense, especially given the context of a charity which people are aware of when approached for fundraising. I think I remember seeing examples of charity TV adverts that do have a happy ending, and I wonder if any supporter experience teams design things like email stewardship around taking a supporter on an emotional journey. If supporters only every get bad news from charity, how does that affect their relationship with the charity and their propensity to give?
30 Twitter threads in 30 days
Mario tweeted, “30 Twitter threads in 30 days“. I like these kinds experiments in building an audience. Mario grew his follower count but 2,500, which based on his current count looks like a 50% increase. I wonder how much the number of followers you have on Twitter and how ‘in-common’ they are affects the success of (in fact I’m pretty much sure it does). Mario also mentions in his thread how important things like the topic of the thread are and using quotes. Twitter is an interesting place for audience building but only in conjunction with being known elsewhere, I don’t think it works on it’s own. Of course audience building only works if you have something to build an audience for.
In the modern age, ethical reasoning is not handled down to us on stone tablets, it requires negotiation
“AI Explainability, Interpretability & Transparency in Finance” by Swapna M https://link.medium.com/fTrxFBrqI9
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.
“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).
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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).
“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.
“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.
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