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How do non-profit executives lead digital transformation?

January 31, 2020

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Alicia Phillips Mandaville

Vice President

Digital transformation: it sounds like a big deal – and it is. One MIT research scientist describes it as a radical rethinking of how an organization uses technology, people and processes to fundamentally change business performance.”[1] Not only that, digital transformation hits a host of hot buttons for internationally focused non-profits: data, technology, innovation, fundamental shifts in the sector, efficiency and others.

For non-profit executives, this notion that data is the future — and the often unspoken fear that if your organization hasn’t figured out how to use it, then the sector will leave you behind – creates strong pressure to deliver.  Day-to-day news and experiences exacerbate this. If Target can send me hyper-targeted direct mail, and Google knows to suggest nearby vegetarian restaurants based on my search history, then for heaven’s sake, why can’t I do e-procurement?!?  As a result, it can be difficult for the non-CTO members of an executive team to know where to start, or how to exercise leadership to support digital transformation. 

For many, the clearest entry point is confronting the reality that being a 21st century, globally present organization requires systems that are accessible to staff wherever they are on the planet. In my case, it was recognizing that if I want IREX program staff to feel meaningfully connected to the organization, then I need to start by making sure they are literally connected to the organization.

Online advice abounds on the mechanical or procedural dimensions of “digital transformation”– and the minute you publicly acknowledge you are hiring for a digital transformation manager (or even a data base administrator) plenty of tech and platform focused companies will reach out to sell you their services.  Unfortunately, most of us in the non-profit space do not have particularly flexible operating budgets, and we have a tendency to  prioritize investing in assets that serve our program participants, rather that our own operational infrastructure, so even the decision to invest can be fraught.  For many human development-oriented NGOs, steady, methodical digital transformation requires leadership that works first and foremost from the assumption that technology is a tool to solve the problems we already know we have. 

So, what does this mean?  For me, consciously leading digital transformation has three key elements:

  • Aligning expectations
  • Proactively managing the relationship between culture change and new technology
  • Asking if (and how) new technology is reinforcing organizational goals

Aligning expectations

For staff, needs and capacity will vary tremendously across an organization. The more diverse the program areas and the work force, the more varied the issues folks need and want solved.  Listening to and diagnosing those needs is a key piece of charting a path to real progress, but it takes regular attention to frame expectations to maintain momentum.  There are many reasons non-profits pursue sequential digital transformation – the intertwined approval processes required to meet compliance requirements not least among them — but it means you need staff patience for what can feel like constant change in the systems they use on a day-to-day basis. And while everyone wants progress and improvement, it can take time for people at every level of the organization to realize that this means things they may now be accustomed to do have to literally change.  

Managing your own expectations matters too. Few people in an organization worry about the system level of operation, which means that few of them notice when it works better.  Initial progress (including some of the hard, foundational stuff) looks boring and minor when viewed from a specific use case, or within a specific program or country office.  Often teams don’t realize a new resource is available or how they can use it until someone shows them directly.  It took a lot to not be despondent when I realized that building a globally available, searchable reporting system was only half the work. Getting people to use it to find the information they needed is still an ongoing effort.

Maintain the balance of culture change and tech investment

The technology side of digital transformation is obvious, but leadership also needs to keep in mind and adjust for the way it intersects with changes in organizational habits and culture.  Something as simple as eliminating fire walls between departments’ data storage or establishing global access to the shared file system signals a shift in how the organization expects people to share information.  Making shared information searchable can trigger changes in who is responsible for keeping information up to date, and who bears the burden of search time when it comes to looking for new updates.  Conscious leadership means staying aware of the effect these changes in habit or practice can have on an organization’s efficiency or ability to learn, leveraging the positive ones, but also recognizing and mitigating the challenges.

Ask if new technology’s structure is reinforcing organizational goals

It is easy (and appropriate!) to get excited about what new platforms or technology can do for our organizations.  But it is also part of the leadership function to stay vigilant about the unexpected or unintended side effects.  Growing regulations around data privacy mandate that we protect the rights of those who’s data we hold, but leaders should also recognize that there are power dynamics in the direction of information flow.  If we are trying to empower locally hired staff, but our data systems are built primarily to make information flow from country offices to HQ (and not the other way around), then we are blocking ourselves.   

Digital transformation is an ongoing process. We lean on our CTO and IT director colleagues to drive us toward the technical solutions that fit our needs, but it is up to the rest of the NGO executive suite to recognize that, like any kind of transformation, real success will require a team of leaders.

Alicia Phillips Mandaville is Vice President for Global Programs at IREX, a global development and education organization that works in 120 countries to empower youth, cultivate leaders, strengthen institutions, and extend access to quality education and information.