Paula Laird: How finance and IT have built the foundations for a digital future at WaterAid

A process of business partnering has adapted the charity's priorities towards what the business needs, not what we think it needs

Paula Laird
Paula Laird

We are some way down the road of digital transformation. Having started the implementation of our current global strategy in 2015, a key element of our planning to deliver this strategy was to ask ourselves what we could do to ensure we were in the best position to support our work as we head towards that date.

Systems that work for people

The result has been an enabling strategy for the organisation, based on what different teams in WaterAid have told us is holding them back or areas they have identified must move forward. Digital transformation has been a key part of this because the world around has changed: we needed to cut through bureaucracy and give people the ability to make decisions and get on with what they want to do.

We started with contracting Accenture Development Partners to do some consultancy on where we were as a digital organisation, then to develop a digital strategy with us.

So far we have made progress in three areas.

Internally we are part-way through the process of creating a more flexible and efficient working environment. Some of the feedback was that a lot of processes were paper-based and overly bureaucratic. We had gaps in our system environment and the established systems were developed through their business functions, lacking clear interrelationships with each other. So we set some money aside to put the right systems in place and delivered these through a cross-organisational leadership group to ensure alignment and optimisation.

We have also focused on providing a flexible working environment, with the digital workplace being key to this. Creating an enabling environment that allowed people to work from any location and access the information they needed required us to make sure we had systems that worked for people rather than the other way round.

Better use of digital tools

The second area of focus has been in the fundraising space. A few years ago we were weak in our use of digital tactics and techniques, so we have been purposeful in disrupting a range of our fundraising techniques. By recruiting people with digital skills we have been able to move away from "traditional" fundraising quite rapidly and improve what we do – so much so that our last campaign won an award for our use of digital tools.

The third area of change is improving the programmes we deliver. Here we have been looking at two things: which new digital tools can help in the delivery of our programmes to ensure they are more effective, a developing area for us, and how we can better make use of data, something we have been doing for some years but with which we know we can be more innovative.

Finance as business partners

From the perspective of how the finance and IT teams support the business, I am very clear on the need for change both in the systems we provide to the business and in the support we give.

We have already made progress on the former. I am encouraging the teams to act as partners that look at the big picture and don't start from the position of what would make their lives simpler as finance people. It is critical to have an approach that asks "how can I help others to be their best?" We get that only by spending more time with people in the business, walking with them in their plans and offering advice, solutions and challenges as a partner in their activities.

Business partnering is at the core of what we do. An important element of that has been adapting our own priorities and ways of working to what the business needs, not what we think it should need. This has required humility, understanding and compromise on our side so that we can support transformation rather than block it.

Paula Laird is director of Finance and IT at WaterAid

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