Jude Sheeran: Wanted - revolutionary digital leaders

The opportunity for the third sector is enormous, so what is holding our not-for-profit organisations back?

Jude Sheeran
Jude Sheeran

"Digital leadership": an important, if contested and prematurely tired phrase.

What we mean, surely, by digital leadership is simply the midwifery and bringing-up of digital business, being the convergence of business and technology. Don’t we?

Digital leadership, for me and a large part of the digital community, starts with a recognition that technology no longer merely makes business, public or civic service more efficient. No, for the vast majority of sectors, from farming to healthcare, technology has become business.

Few deny that the convergence of business and technology continues to accelerate or that the opportunity for the third sector is enormous, so what is holding the UK’s not-for-profit organisations back?

It is no secret that the most successful charities are fuelled by focused leaders and cause-driven people. As such, it must be that most of them want digital. Some just don’t know it yet, and it is for digital leaders to show them why and how.

Economists refer to the delay between the emergence of technology and productivity gains as a paradox. To my mind, at least, it is exactly that until we factor in people and culture; then it becomes perfectly understandable.

I recently attended the Gartner Symposium, at which the technology research company downgraded its prognosis for legacy systems and services. "We hear you," it said. "Legacy is not a bad thing. Ninety per cent of your applications will still be in use in 2023."

Why would the great Gartner admit such a seemingly tragic fact? Because the real issue is not the technology. It is, as ever, people like you and I.

Put simply, old-school chief information officers and the like tend to protect the realms they have built. In some cases, it’s like watching a tech version of the Kodak story in slow motion. Obsolescence through stubborn habits and a good measure of arrogance is not exactly what civic society needs. Thankfully, some of those old-school CIOs are stepping up to the challenge and others are being forced out by a new breed of digital leader – but there is a long way to go.

Last year, Eduserv’s research programme discovered that, although the majority of marketing and communications teams were embracing the digital revolution, a minority of leaders in HR, finance and, critically, operations were not. I suppose such a state of affairs is to be expected thanks to the advent of social media, but digital means much more than that. One year on, research from Skills Platform confirms that organisations are making slow progress, with just a small minority of charities having plans in place to take full advantage of the digital opportunity.

The most valuable technology professionals are those that recognise, learn about, own and then, above all, enable their organisations to embrace and take advantage of digital. Implementation, relatively speaking, is child’s play.

Revolutionaries such as Jason Caplin, chief digital officer at Barnardo’s, get it. "Digital can be used as a stealth catalyst for change," he says. "The digital bit of Barnardo’s is here to completely reinvent social care."

It is incumbent on all people working in the sector to find the courage to understand and take advantage of all that digital has to offer, and to show courageous leadership in doing so. Millions of Britons need you to.

Jude Sheeran is chief executive of Eduserv

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