Will digital transform civil society?

Julie Dodd, 24 November 2017

We’ve been talking about digital transformation for a while now, says Julie Dodd, and some charities are doing great things with digital. But is change happening fast enough?


Change is never happening fast enough in my book! I think it’s interesting we’ve got to a place where we’ve moved from, maybe two years ago, talking about digital transformation as a new thing on the horizon, to it being a regular topic of conversation, so: what does it mean to be a data-led organisation? What does it mean to be an organisation that really embeds technology in the services it delivers or the way it engages with supporters? But is that really felt and real?

I think in some organisations – and maybe including my own – we sometimes comfort ourselves that because we’re having the conversation we’re actually delivering a change. I’m not convinced that that’s true yet and we need to get on and deliver the change.

We sometimes comfort ourselves that because we’re having the conversation we’re actually delivering a change.

What’s fantastic is that there’s a huge raft of examples of fantastic digital transformation happening across our sector whether that be organisations… traditional organisations like ours… So you look at something like the British Red Cross trying out a new Alexa skill to help people do first aid when they need their hands free. That’s really exciting.

You can look at organisations like Friends of the Earth who decided they needed more technical nous in-house but weren’t sure how to invest in staff to do that, so they made a program bringing in tech startups and housing them so they could tap into their expertise in exchange for some free resource in space. I think that’s a brilliant and very digital way of looking at things.

So yes, I think there’s lots and lots of examples of great transformation happening. I’m not sure yet I’ve seen one organisation who is fully transformed in our sector.

I think there’s definitely a sense that there are a group of digital technology people who will save us from this problem. And the truth is actually we all need to save ourselves from this problem. It is not a small team of people who can transform an entire organisation. An organisation and an entire sector needs to grasp the nettle and change itself.

That means it’s going to be uncomfortable. And I think if people think they’re doing digital transformation well and they’re not feeling uncomfortable then they’re lying to themselves.

I think for an organisation not to embrace digital transformation or to think that it can wait… there is a really high risk of becoming obsolete. Not just because there will be new young upstart organisations stepping on your toes – that’s already starting to happen – but actually because people are starting to find ways to solve their own problems through technology. That’s a really exciting prospect and I hope that we will become obsolete!

I think the phrase “digital transformation” is tricky. It’s certainly going through that phase of “the buzz is over”. Are we getting a bit tired of it? Yes!

I think the bit that’s useful in it is the “transformation” word and we can’t forget that this is a big and serious change. And the second we start thinking this is business as usual then we’re lost.

I think a digitally transformed organisation in the new reality is a facilitator, an organisation that continually takes the best of technology and helps make sure it gets into the hands of people that need it. So where I will say that I think people will find answers through technology for themselves.

There will be still lots of people who… the answers are there for them but they don’t know that they exist. And so I think there’s a role for organisations like ours to understand the needs and link them up with the solutions, because those solutions might be created by commercial companies who don’t understand their needs and will never know how to get those products into the right hands.

We will always be needed as facilitators of the change we want to see.

I think we will always be needed as facilitators of the change we want to see. I think the biggest challenge around digital transformation is making space for it. Because this is too big to tackle alongside business as usual.

I think [there are] two critical things that organisations like ours in civil society need to really think about. One is around the strategic approach to data, so we all have databases and we all are thinking about GDPR and how we manage people’s personal contact data. But there is a bigger data picture here and I want us to be an organisation that’s answering the question “How can data solve Parkinson’s?” Because I think it can.

The other big question is about the HR side of things and I think the relationship between the people leading this change and your organisational development teams – of which HR is a critical one – if they’re not working and really strongly strategically aligned then it’s not going to happen.

Transforming staff so that they feel confident and capable to deliver this change at the pace that we need it to go is where huge investment needs to go.

So for me, if there are barriers that need tackling it’s that: we have to invest in a strategic approach to data and we have to invest in our people to be able to move at the pace we need to move.

What gives me hope is that we learn a lot from each other in this sector.

I think when you look at the pace of change in general across civil society there is probably a truth in saying that change doesn’t happen fast in lots of ways.

What gives me hope is that we learn a lot from each other in this sector. So all it takes is a couple of big examples and you start to see the domino effect happening.

So I think one big step on this way actually was what government did outside of civil society. Government, GDS, Government Digital Service program, really moved on the conversation a lot.

And I think the next change is coming from civil society. There will be some leaders – hopefully Parkinson’s UK! – who demonstrate a way forward that makes it feel really tangible and possible and then everyone will start moving faster.

Julie Dodd is director of digital transformation and communication at Parkinson’s UK and author of The New Reality.