We won’t mention ‘Digital Transformation’ but you could if you want to (part 1 of 2)

Author: Ash Mann

I spoke at this year’s Arts Marketing Association conference at the Sage in Gateshead. As always, I’ve tried to turn my presentation into a blog post format for those who weren’t there. I’ve broken it into two parts. I hope it’s useful…

I want to explore what goes into successful digital projects, and how the behaviours and insights that lead to successful digital projects can have a much wider impact across the organisations we work with.

I’ve said I’m not going to mention digital transformation but I probably will, a bit. Or rather I want to talk about the transformative potential of digital projects.

This is something we’ve seen time and again, digital projects are often pan-organisational, inter-departmental and user-centred in nature, and this way of thinking and working – when truly embraced, and done “properly” can lead to significant change far beyond the scope of the original project.

I’m not going to talk about tools, or platforms. In fact I don’t think I’m really going to talk much about technology at all.

If you wanted to you could quite easily frame some of the case studies I’m going to touch on today as “digital transformation” projects.

But I’m not sure how helpful that term is any more.

What even is digital?

Much like ‘digital’ itself the term digital transformation has become so ubiquitous and broad that it has ceased to have any real meaning.

And I think, more than anything, the one thing I’d like you to take away from this discussion is that when digital projects have had the biggest impact it has rarely been about the digital ‘stuff’. Technology was not the primary focus or outcome.

The most powerful and effective result from these projects was a change in understanding and behaviour, on an institutional level.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what tools you are using, if you are seeing the ‘thing’ that a digital project is producing as the main, or only, outcome then, I think, you are missing out.

I run a digital agency, of course I think this stuff is important.

However, having worked on these sorts of projects for almost 15 years now I think that digital competencies, or a lack thereof, are usually a pretty good indicator of wider institutional culture, governance and resilience.

Digital is the canary in the coal mine.

If you aren’t good at this stuff then chances are there are much bigger problems than just having a rubbish website.

Digital is now so important that a lack of efficacy in this area often indicates a lack of effective leadership and a lack of interest or willingness to invest in customer experience – both of which are…a problem.

And, historically at least, digital responsibility has been silo-ed into one department, or – in lots of cases – into one person.

And that department or person is rarely invested in or trusted to allow them to maximise the potential impact of digital on our organisations.

And furthermore, by making digital the responsibility of one part of the business – usually the marketing department – you are setting yourself up for failure from the start.

In fact this is one of the reasons that I started our Digital Works series of events, there is no way that one person, or one small department can be expert in all the behaviours and knowledge required to make a meaningful contribution to an entire organisation’s digital thinking.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but these unicorn superheroes will just be papering over much bigger cracks with their over-achieving.

I think that the very word ‘digital’ is stopping people getting the most out of the activity that that term encompasses. If you asked 20 people what it meant you’d get 20 different answers.

I think that ‘digital’ in its broadest terms should be seen as a competency, or set of competencies.

It could be considered as a layer, an aspect of what you do, or a lens through which to engage with people differently.

When it is truly embraced, and truly effective it is a way of doing things. It is not standalone

And if it is seen as a way of doing things then it becomes clearer that it could, and I’d argue, should impact every area of your business. Hopefully it also becomes clear that simply putting one department in charge of ‘digital’ or ‘digital projects’ is going to mean you miss out on opportunities.

Digital is best engaged with through a change in mindset and culture, there is no point trying to become expert in all the tools, platforms, services and concepts that conversations about digital can introduce.

In 2016, Tom Loosemore (co-founder of the Government Digital Service) defined digital as follows:

All too often the focus is on the ‘technologies’ part of this

Technology is tangible, it’s easy to get excited about and it’s easy, or easier, to sell as a thing that people should invest in.

As a sector I think we’re quite bad around our engagement with technology. Either it is ignored entirely. Or there seems to be a view that purchasing or investing in a ‘thing’, a new platform, or system, or gadget is an end in itself. And will Solve All Our Problems.

And funders don’t help with this. The way that funding has been structured around digital projects has focused on short-term thinking, more focused on procuring new tech, or a single use-case. The millions of pounds that have been spent on things that have done absolutely nothing to change the thinking, skills or culture of our sector is, frankly, outrageous. But that’s a topic for another day.

However even if we keep the focus on the technologies part of this statement you need to get the most out of your institutional relationship with these experts and solutions.

And to make the most of those relationships, and for the work these experts deliver to have a lasting impact you need to accept this will mean change, and isn’t something that can just be bought.

Because to achieve real change, and sustained and sustainable impact you need to focus on the ‘culture, practices and processes’ part of the statement.

This is less sexy than buying a load of new tech.

And this is hard. Culture change is really, really hard.

But I’d argue that it is fundamental to the long term survival of our organisations.

We have seen numerous examples of organisations that display ‘digital-friendly’ behaviours having a more successful, healthy and resilient approach to everything they do.

Not just digital projects.

So which behaviours are there that increase the likelihood of success, in digital projects or otherwise?

Digital-friendly behaviours

Willingness to:

  • Understand and focus on user needs
  • Experiment/test ideas
  • Move quickly and confidently (make decisions)
  • Try new things (take risks)
  • Be unafraid to admit mistakes
  • Ask for, share and act on feedback
  • Communicate openly
  • Prioritise

I think that any organisation regardless of size, budget, art form or location can adopt these competencies and behaviours. And you will see improvements as a result.

A tangent

Digital competencies are an interesting area. I think digital competence is an important issue, the EU have actually identified it as one of 8 key areas for life-long learning alongside things like literacy and numeracy (you can read a bit more about that here digital-competence.eu).

I think this is an important thing to try and quantify as I believe it relates to many of the issues that the cultural sector suffers around a lack of ‘digital skills’. Measuring digital competence feels like an important first step in understanding the size and shape of the problem we need to solve.

Anyway, back to what I was talking about…

Sweeping generalisation: Arts organisations are inherently conservative places.

I’ve been told by some that the list of behaviours I outlined above is seen as a threat, and above all a risk, and risk is scary.

Or that the list above will damage effectiveness and ‘stop things getting done’.

I think both of those statements are incorrect.

Accepting risk

I would argue that risk is essential if we are ever going to identify new and better ways of working, and to fix many of the fundamental issues that threaten our sector

Whether that’s around finding, reaching and engaging new audiences, identifying and developing new revenue models, engaging with emerging platforms and technologies, ensuring our work delivers meaningful impact, developing and upskilling our workforce, or any one of the other myriad issues that we have to engage with.

Every time you see a digital horror story: a tweet storm that attracted international press coverage, a website that went 400% over budget and was delivered 3 years late, spending 100s of thousands on live streaming infrastructure that was never used. The bad thing didn’t happen because they took a risk, in fact I’d argue that in almost all of these cases the aversion to risk was the *cause* of the issue.

And even when that’s not true, an aversion to risk is going to exacerbate the problem.

And wherever you see a successful digital project; an acceptance and comfort with risk is always at the heart of it.

You will never do anything new, or better, if you’re not willing to engage with a little risk.

Not taking a risk means that everything will stay the same

Not experimenting means you’re never going to understand what might be possible

And we, as a sector, can not afford for that to be the case

The world is changing too fast for us not to be able to respond to that pace of change.

And in order to able to be dynamic, in order to be able to be responsive, we need to be comfortable with risk.

In part 2 of this article I look in more detail at some examples of where organisations we have worked with have embraced this way of thinking and working to its fullest and seen significant shifts institutional behaviour as a result.