Harriet Jones: How finance teams can power digital change

Moving to digital solutions can help a charity achieve its business goals

Harriet Jones
Harriet Jones

Our mission as a charity is to stop asthma attacks and cure asthma. We do this through funding research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people with asthma with expert advice and support.

So when we talk about digital at Asthma UK we always root it in why we are talking about digital and what we are seeking to achieve. That always brings it back to "what does it do for people with asthma?"

Our challenge is that about 5.4 million people in the UK have asthma. Globally it’s increasing significantly and at pace, particularly in the industrialising world. One of the best ways of improving outcomes for people with asthma is for every individual to be better supported to manage the condition themselves, including improving medication adherence.

Many people with asthma would be open to replacing GP visits with some sort of NHS-endorsed mobile health solution. Given the number of people with the condition this is something that lends itself to analytics for more personalised medicine.

Digital supports business goals

As a relatively small organisation – we are only about 90 people – digital is important because it provides a way of delivering in each of these areas.

We’ve made progress on a number of different fronts. Using data, we have been able to understand how people with asthma live their lives, what priorities they have and the kind of services they need. That allows us to influence funders and policymakers in a way that we couldn’t before, using the patient voice.

With our Smart Asthma and Connected Asthma reports, we have looked at how digital tools can help when the NHS isn’t delivering consistently good basic care. We have also created digital tools and moved many of our services online.

We have completely overhauled our digital platforms to increase reach. We have an Asthma Risk Checker online so that people can assess their own risks of having an attack and understand what they can do to mitigate those risks. We have almost completed a 12-week asthma support programme pilot making use of WhatsApp, and have just started a multi-year programme with the ambition of extending our services to new, under-served groups with the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Our lottery team is constantly testing new ways to bring players on a completely digital journey, with many lessons learned on the way.

Managing risk, navigating uncertainty

The finance team has been involved in all of those changes to a greater or lesser extent.

We have had to work with external partners in an agile way – for instance, with our digital agencies. A new way of working brought a new set of risks to be navigated.

As we have moved away from working in siloes to multi-team projects, we have had to think about who has decision-making and budgetary authority and how we get the governance right.

We have also had to help the business work out where it makes sense to replace legacy systems with new technology and understand the implications of moving from capital investment to costs allocated to operating expenses.

The most challenging area for finance teams is making investments in projects that involve new technology where, in making a business case, the benchmarks don’t exist. We have had to get used to making a best guess or judgement about these projects and making sure we manage risk as they roll out.

Helping to get the board on board

Underpinning all of this is our work with the board, which ultimately has to back the investment we have made in digital.

Our job here has been to assure them that, although we are working in a new and unfamiliar environment, we are maintaining good governance and the money we spend comes with an expectation of driving new revenue. Managing their expectations in these areas as well as getting them to understand investment in technology is an ongoing cost of doing business now and has been critical to embracing digital change.

Harriet Jones is director of finance at Asthma UK

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