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Culture Eats Tech for Breakfast to Drive Innovation at International NGOs

November 26, 2020

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Chris Proulx

Chief Growth Officer, US

It is no secret that NGOs are not readily included in the conversation about organizations that are driving innovation with digital mindsets and solutions. With the pace of change quickening for everyone working for social good around the world, we decided to dig deeper into how to accelerate digital transformation in our sector. One of the headline sessions at the recent Humentum Annual Conference explored whether NGOs will have the skills to thrive in the emerging digital world—or be left behind!

A hot topic!

About 100 people crammed the room and overflowed into the hall for almost two hours to wrestle with how we can build the skills, culture and processes needed for digital transformation. At the start of the session, we did a few interactive activities to get a feel for who was in the room—and there was some surprises!

Less than 10% of the people in the room were IT people! So who were all these digital change agents? About half worked in Finance, another big chunk were Grants and Compliance pros with a good sized group of HR, learning and capacity building people filling out the room. That’s exciting and the diversity in the room generated lots of energy and ideas. And—it’s a powerful signal of the passion for innovation across the sector.

We also asked people to cluster in each of the four corners of the room as a visual poll of the most important obstacle in becoming a digitally savvy organization? The big loser in the room—the technology! Almost no one felt that the actual tech was the obstacle in their organization.

It was culture—overwhelmingly, people clogged that corner of the room; followed by skills and then business processes. The results were such an overwhelming response, that we changed the session design on the fly to create more space to discuss culture and skills in more depth.

What does the data say?

In the room was Laura MacMillan, COO from NetHope. She shared the results from a recent NetHope-Humentum survey on how NGO leaders viewed their own skills and the capacity in their organization. In turns out, a majority of individuals ranked their own skills higher than those of their organization across every factor. Hmm—so is it really that everyone else is the problem, or is this a by product of our NGO culture that prevents us otherwise innovative people from innovating faster? So, it is no surprise that survey respondents felt their organizations were weakest at entrepreneurial spirit and adaptive collaboration —clearly these are key cultural issues we need to address if we want to accelerate digital innovation.

NetHope’s Digital Skills Framework

In fact, a majority of the participants in the room at the Conference felt that their organization would require around 3 years to achieve meaningful digital transformation. Will that be fast enough? Will that timeline slip? Will our missions be left unfulfilled as other actors respond more quickly?

C-Level support can drive business process innovation

Mark Reilley, Senior Director for Information Technology at Pact shared how digital transformation is a critical strategic priority for their entire team starting with the CEO. At Pact, they have adopted an Core-Explore framework that helps Mark and his team make sure they are prioritizing and balancing the right things—which includes making sure that the systems for doing payroll and accounting are rock solid as well as exploring innovative approaches to issues such as data, program delivery, etc.

During the breakout work sessions, teams explored actionable steps we could implement to boost culture, skills and business process to accelerate change.

The business process team highlighted several next steps:

  • senior leadership buy-in;
  • well defined business processes mapped to a business plan;
  • safe space for innovation and failure;
  • standards, resources, and tech to support the process—making it clear “how things are done” at your organization;
  • and data to track our progress!

Sounds like Mark and the team at Pact are already on the right track.

The team working on Digital Skills put together a polished set of “news interviews” to capture their rich work. They addressed several ideas mapped to the key points that came of the NetHope-Humentum survey, including:

  • Leadership skills for a continuous improvement culture;
  • Building collaboration and knowledge management skills–not just for the millenials;
  • Change management–tapping into global trends;
  • Knowing how to learn as a key skill for the future;
  • We need train to build readiness;
  • Communicating through new tech.

And what about that Culture issue that resonated so strongly? Chris Pirie, General Manager for Field Readiness at Microsoft and a group of NGO leaders  quickly identified 15 must-do ideas for any INGO looking to build the right environment for innovation and digital transformation to thrive–and yes, in the country offices not just HQ!

With so many ideas—it’s also important to remember to focus. Chris Neu, COO of Tech Change, shared how many of their clients rush to the new tech when they don’t need it—for example, asking how should we use Blockchain?. For most organizations, they don’t need to right now. But they do need to know what tech drives their core business. For Tech Change, they invest all their software development and user experience design in their online learning platform—their own web site—nah, they outsource that!

A good reminder that to accelerate transformation, it is just as important to identify what not to do, and what to stop doing, in order to make space for all the new initiatives.

So maybe we could add one more category to Pact’s Core-Explore framework…NeverMore!