Martin Baker: Invest in your digital foundations now if you want to thrive in the future

Covid-19 has catapulted the sector towards digital transformation, but can this be sustained beyond the pandemic?

Could you name one charity that has not progressed digitally since we first went into lockdown last year? 

If you want to survive, there simply hasn’t been the option not to.

Covid-19 has been a catalyst for digital transformation in the sector, but it’s still important to get the foundations right. 

If you build a house on shoddy foundations, at some point the roof will collapse. 

St John Ambulance, which normally trains 265,000 people a year in workplace health and safety and first aid, is taking a staged approach to its transformation into a digital learning provider. 

“Digital transformation isn’t a destination,” says Andrew New, head of education and training products at the charity. “It’s something that’s continuously happening.”

St John Ambulance moved quickly in the first lockdown to ramp up its digital approach to delivery – rapidly creating and adapting online course packages to serve a range of key workers. 

But after some months, it needed to pause and review the foundations on which that development had taken place. 

The first thing to review was the business model for digital learning delivery and whether it was the right one to use going forward. 

The team then developed a common language for describing elearning and the charity’s digital learning products. 

Vitally, they also analysed and improved user journeys, so that people taking part in their training were getting the best online experience possible.

The next stage is about bringing digital innovation into its training portfolio. 

As a charity that gives and teaches first aid, St John Ambulance wants to respond to the digital opportunities presented by Covid-19 without over-complicating the learning pathway. 

In 2021, the charity is looking to expand its digital portfolio – particularly in schools, where face-to-face training would traditionally have been offered. 

It’s also looking to deliver more live online training in wellbeing and health and safety, while building competency among trainers to deliver engaging online sessions.

Cats Protection, meanwhile, had been investing in digital learning for several years, so when face-to-face training was no longer possible it was already ahead of the game.

“The day that lockdown happened, we already had core elearning resources that our volunteers and employees could access immediately,” explains Laura Shaw, digital learning specialist. 

“Naturally we saw a spike in access to online training in March and April last year, but this has been sustained throughout.”

Online training for volunteers was already an option at the charity, but for most of those courses there was a face-to-face alternative. That has now changed. 

As well as the traditional online courses, the charity delivers learning via Microsoft Teams, and there has been a huge increase in take-up, as well as a willingness to continue elearning beyond the pandemic.

Digital transformation isn’t just about technology, though. Much of it is about culture, and having a team and board that is willing to accept change and move with the times. 

The Brain Tumour Charity spent years building and developing a supportive culture that embraces technology as a way of keeping each other connected and updated. It’s one of the charity’s unique selling points as an employer, and why it has been recognised as one of the best charities to work for.

“Our work is incredibly rewarding, but also very challenging, which means that supporting one another, staying connected and having some fun along the way is really important for wellbeing,” says Helen Wyatt, talent development manager. 

“Since lockdown, we have shifted our attention to keeping staff motivated and connected via a range of digital tools – using our internal communications platform to host virtual tea breaks, team quizzes and more.” 

The charity also adapted to keep the community it supports connected. During normal times the charity would organise family days out at various locations. 

Instead it is running digital family days with organisations like Edinburgh Zoo, with overwhelmingly positive feedback. 

According to Shaw, Covid-19 has progressed elearning so much at Cats Protection that it feels like the digital agenda has advanced by years, enabling volunteers and employees to engage. If that’s not an example of the power of digital transformation, then I don’t know what is. 

Martin Baker is the founder and chief executive of the Charity Learning Consortium

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