John Simcock: How do you appraise a technology strategy in such a fast-moving world?

Charities may need to focus on a business strategy rather than on technology or 'digital first', writes the Eduserv director

John Simcock
John Simcock

Actually, should that question be – do you need a strategy at all?

When we conducted research into transformation in charities recently, one of the most interesting things we found is that many charities currently have serious doubts over whether digital and technology strategies have much long term value.

It’s not that they don’t see the value of technology or innovation. It’s more that many charities have had their fingers burned. They’ve developed a plan only to subsequently find that technology’s moved so fast that their strategy is out of date in under a year.

This can be especially galling if the strategy was promising big cost savings. Will those savings materialise as promised? Or will you have to put in even more investment when changes in the technology market demand that you change tack?

You can see the frustration and understand why many charities are now shying away from developing digital strategies that look ahead more than a few months, or if they do look ahead longer they are couched in much less specific language and tend to express broader themes.

But where does this leave charities now? Do they simply have to accept they’re going to have to fly by the seat of their pants for the foreseeable future? Or is there a better way that will help you make sure you maintain an element of control?

Stop separating business and tech strategies

The answer, according to a number of charities we’ve spoken to and worked with recently, is that you need to put the focus on business strategy rather than on a technology or ‘digital first’ strategy.

Kay Boycott, chief executive of Asthma UK, for example, has argued that the way to move forward is to severely limit the use of the word digital. Instead, you should always focus on the vision for broader organisational transformation.

"You need a business strategy, not a digital strategy," she said recently in this report. "In our case, this has meant refocusing the organisation around the lifetime relationship management needs of beneficiaries.  This is an objective and strategy that’s never going to go out of date."

As a result of this approach Asthma UK is making really effective use of technology that delivers on the organisation’s business goals and helps people with Asthma – for example, by working at a national level with primary care software providers to develop digital asthma plans that can be adopted by GPs.

Another similar approach that I have seen recently was within a large NHS trust where they ran a successful staff engagement programme developing their values and strategic business imperatives. They then looked to find novel ways of addressing these business challenges using new digital tools – embracing experimentation to learn together and looking to use technology in a more organic way, as opposed to a pre-defined far reaching vision that never gets implemented.

As in the case of Asthma UK, this initiative was not borne out of a technology or digital-first strategy. Rather, it was a business focussed strategy  based on the long term needs of beneficiaries and how those needs could be served better.

Essentially, what these organisations are saying is this: while they accept that any new initiatives that improve both service and delivery efficiency are more than likely going to be delivered through some sort of technology, they should be borne from a mind-set where business and digital thinking and strategies are not separate things.

At the moment it’s probably true to say that only a minority of charities are adopting this approach fully. Over the coming years, I think we’ll see a lot of other charities follow suit – maybe to the extent that we won’t be talking about digital strategies much at all.

John Simcock is director of charities and third sector at Eduserv, a not-for-profit provider of IT, digital and web development services

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