Be the Change: how to live and breathe digital transformation

Jump to sections within this theme:

Intro  |  Ditching digital strategy  |  Bringing HR in  |   Breaking the bottleneck   |  Cultural characteristics  |   Conclusion   |   Recommendations  |  6 slide summary


The next few years will be critical to the digital transformation process. We’ll start to see organisations who ‘get this’ re-merging their digital strategies back into their overall mission - pushing through a series of unglamorous internal changes, from investment in skills to changing recruitment processes, from overhauling IT to, ultimately, changing how they think – and how they do.  And whilst it may not feel like innovation from the outside, the organisations who grasp this change-nettle will be laying strong foundations to survive and thrive in to the future.

The New Reality's leaders do not underestimate the task: shaking off the shackles of old habits and expectations will present difficult challenges. Our experts were quick to highlight that we should not be fooled by the word ‘digital’ in ‘digital transformation’ - underlining that what we bring to the party as people is what will ultimately create cultural change. 

The culture is the fundamental thing. You can talk about digital, but actually if you don’t change the culture of the organisation then nothing will happen. It’ll just be window dressing.”
— Vicky Browning, Director, CharityComms

The good news is that we obviously aren’t starting from scratch here – this is a cultural change that is already underway and there’s an existing zeitgeist to tap into – if you know where to look. Yet, it's also crucial to acknowledge that in any discussion about business transformation, you’ll quickly run up against the “people don’t like change” mantra. Indeed, the fear of a painful and costly change process was cited as a key factor in the slow progress to date. But perhaps we should stop listening to the rhetoric, because there there’s plenty of evidence that we are good at change where technology is concerned: we all learnt to use computers as part of our daily working lives, we all adopted email, we accepted smartphones as an improvement over our landlines, and the fastest growing group on Twitter are 50+ (Source: Fastcompany). Yes, there may be some casualties in the process who resist this change, but we humans are adaptable.

To minimise resistance, we must make a relatively swift and smooth transition between demonstrating why this transformation is needed, to showing how it is possible. The change may not happen overnight - cultural transformation of any organisation is hard - but the tantalising prospect of weaving digital technology into the fabric of our organisations is, in the New Reality cohort's view, worthy of all the rejuvenation effort we can muster. And when the idea of a digital strategy - as separate from the core organisational strategy - prompts snorts of derision, organisations will know they're on the path to technology invisibility - and success. 

Ditch the digital strategy

Having a digital strategy will soon seem as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy.”
— Kay Boycott, CEO, Asthma UK

Initially the development of digital strategies within non-profits was seen as a clear sign of progress, but increasingly this separation from the central organisation’s stated mission is reinforcing a perception that technology is just another department with its own goals, rather than an enabler for all.

We’re developing the digital strategy now, but should it have been more of a part of the central strategy at the start? Some would say it should have been. That’s what I’d say to other Chief Executives – they need to question that.”
— Steve Ford, CEO, Parkinson’s UK

The New Reality cohort are leading from the front and their message is clear: there is a discrepancy between having a digital strategy separate from the broader organisational strategy:

Many organisations are still asking for a digital strategy, instead of an organisational strategy that embeds digital and technology as a universal enabler, across the board.”
— Owen Pringle, Director of

A number of interviewees also highlighted that existing digital strategies may already be out of date because of the rapid change in technology and digital skills. Their recommendation was clear: as a minimum organisational strategies should be reviewed on at least an annual basis to assess digital technology’s performance. And strategies should equip organisations with a mandate to seek further opportunities for its use in wider operations.

Unlikely protagonists? Why Human Resources are digital’s new best friends!

Human resources teams and directors are rarely experts in digital technology, but according to some of the New Reality’s most experienced contributors, they urgently need to take up this mantle.

Owen Pringle, Director of and former Global director of digital for Amnesty International, originally identified this crucial gap in thinking in his excellent blog post ‘The role of HR in digital transformation’ and went further during interview to explain why HR has been so absent from thoughts and conversations to date:

HR has a key role to play due to its unique and organisation-wide perspective on strategy and resources. However, a lack of awareness in terms of its importance in this transformation is resulting in HR people under-delivering in this area.”
— Owen Pringle, Director of

The common consensus from this study is that most established non-profits still have a largely non-digitally-minded culture and the lack of HR involvement in and around technology conversations may have something to do with that. To date, outside of pastoral and line management issues, only a handful of the New Reality contributors had met with their HR directors to discuss the opportunities offered by technology, let alone digital transformation.

And as any transformation process can only succeed if it successfully captures the hearts and minds of staff, HR directors must understand that they are instrumental in shifting internal culture to integrate digital thinking. As a matter of priority digital leaders and champions within organisations must therefore develop strategies for getting HR onside.

Interviewees cited three key areas that require HR leadership:

i)   Upgrading digital capabilities across the organisation

Efforts to grow digital capabilities to date have focused on the creation and growth of digital teams. The next stage will be about shifting the emphasis to up-skilling more broadly across organisations. In addition to core digital skills like social media marketing and digital content production, staff across the board will need to become conversant with how the changing audience behaviours around technology impact on what they do. To create an effective digital working environment HR will need to communicate, co-ordinate and co-operate closely with facilities and infrastructure teams to make sure that all staff have adequate access to high-speed internet, modern web browsers and are not ‘locked down’ in the range of digital tools and software they use. Saying “staff must only use IE7” is simply unacceptable (and HR directors must know why and be able to confidently explain why this is unacceptable).

ii)  Recruiting a digital-ready workforce

Charity staff recruitment practice needs an overhaul. The pattern of recruiting in the shape of previously successful candidates no longer works when business operations are being revolutionised. The growing demand for digital capability across teams means that job specifications for all departments must include digital competencies:

“Take off ‘must be proficient in Word’ and put in ‘must have used a CMS’, ‘must understand basic data analysis’ or ‘must be able to write pithy copy’.”
— Gareth Ellis-Thomas, Head of Digital, Prostate Cancer UK

Leaders must support their HR teams to help bring in more digitally-capable senior roles.

We will also need completely new skills – particularly in the key areas of data management, digital strategy and business model planning. Not all of these will be easy hires – there is just as much demand for these roles in commercial businesses and traditional charity salaries may struggle to compete for the best talent. Instead HR teams may need to form new partnerships - with universities producing brilliant data graduates, or with corporate secondment schemes - in order to find and retain the right new kinds of staff .

iii)  Anticipating and managing increased staff turnover

The elephant in this particular room is whether or not digital transformation means a smaller workforce, and therefore job losses. The honest answer is “possibly”. Views from the New Reality contributors were split between those who believe the efficiencies offered by improved digital processes and tools will create more space to deliver great services, and others who see the potential benefits of running a lighter, more agile workforce. The experiences shared suggest that after initial reticence most staff come along willingly after some technology myth-busting and the potential benefits to beneficiaries are clearly demonstrated. However, some resistance is inevitable, particularly among longer-serving staff. HR teams should prepare for a higher staff turnover rate in the next few years which, although more work for them in the short term, will lead to a fit-for-purpose workforce in the future.

Our staff turnover is around 30% at the moment and that’s what I’d expect during a transformation process. We’ve needed to move people on and have new people coming in. It helps to create the revolution.”
— HR director at a major charity

HR has a major role to play as the challenger in ensuring organisations’ digital capabilities are up to scratch – and leaders and HR directors must recognise that these assignments won’t be optional. Over two thirds of contributors to the study raised the point that the incoming generation’s use of and expectations around technology will change the shape of workforce whether the old guard likes it or not. For an average graduate the idea of not being digitally enabled will seem an absurdity.

As digital natives grow up and enter the workforce it’s going to be increasingly odd for those skills to be silo’s.”

— Vicky Browning, Director, CharityComms
My experiences in HR and those of colleagues tell me that young talented people are partly making choices about companies to work for on the basis of whether they’ll get an iPhone.”
— Lucy Semmens, Director of Strategy & Performance, Cystic Fibrosis Trust

From the New Reality interviews it’s apparent that beyond the CEOs and digital champions, HR directors and their teams are the unlikely protagonists of digital transformation. Firstly, it’s therefore crucial to invite HR directors and teams to participate in meaningful conversations around digital. Secondly, it’s important to then challenge them to lead up-skilling and recruitment to get your organisation’s fit-for-purpose workforce of the future ready to jump to it.

CASE STUDY: How the Cystic Fibrosis Trust are changing their culture through tech

Lucy Semmens is Director of Strategy & Performance at the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. She is currently leading a major change programme at the charity to coincide with their office move.

Cystic Fibrosis are trialling new robotics to help staff who have to work remotely

Cystic Fibrosis are trialling new robotics to help staff who have to work remotely

"We want to create a culture where our staff feel empowered so we're using the opportunity of moving offices to do that. 

We’ve invested properly in infrastructure technology - everyone has a laptop, we’re getting rid of landlines, everyone will have a mobile. All the applications are in the Cloud - for example we’re using Office 365 in the Cloud. In terms of office continuity it’s amazing. If the office burns down everyone can carry on working!

We’re also introducing some robotics because we have people who can’t physically meet because of the infection issues with Cystic Fibrosis. We’re using a new form of robotics - it’s something like a Segway with a mini iPad on it. You can control it from home, you can FaceTime with people through it, you can get  IT support through it. It's all part of making the office a place for collaboration, and for working together to deliver on specific things.

In the space of 6 months I’ve seen a change in my office that’s huge. We haven't needed any major training - people have just adapted. If that's possible in 6 months - 10 years down the line what might we be talking about?"

Breaking the digital bottleneck

When it comes to current digital staff’s role in bringing about culture change it’s not all about revolution. This is one area of digital transformation where fuelling the good practice that already exists can bring quick and important wins. The Directors and Heads of Digital who contributed to The New Reality shared an unusual common ambition: to try and do themselves out of a job…

I would love for the digital team not to be needed because it’s just a part of how everyone works. We’ve quite a way to go before we get there.”
— Luke Surry, Head of Digital, RSPB
Digital leaders need to hand the flame around as quickly as possible. As a Digital Director you want your role to be obsolete as soon as possible.”
— Ed Humphrey, Director of Digital, BFI

This strong desire to push digital capability across organisations rather than empire-build is evidence of the New Reality as it already exists – and a demonstration of the positive and open mindset that many suggested typifies good ‘digital’ people.

As digital teams gradually shift from being the owners of all digital knowledge to being enablers and centres of expertise that can empower their people and their organisations, so the New Reality will gather its own forward momentum. Currently many teams are on the nursery slopes – and the temptation (particularly at more junior staff levels) to assume responsibility for all digital production is hard to resist. But others have already graduated to the black runs and are demonstrating an accomplished approach to devolving digital responsibility across their organisations:

We picked an area of focus and spent a lot of time on training staff on social media. We’ve trained nearly two thirds of the organisation in social now, so instead of having 3 people in the social media team, we’ve effectively got 1000! To support that we’ve also put social media in as part of staff objectives and job specs.”
— Amanda Neylon, Head of Digital, Macmillan Cancer Support

A word of caution to digital ‘experts’ though: humility appears to be in as much demand as expertise. During interviews some levelled criticism at digital professionals in non-profits for alienating others by slipping from being knowledgeable to appearing arrogant:

There are quite a lot of people in digital right now who think they’re hot stuff. But then you look at the fact that some big charities aren’t landing their digital strategies. It might be that they didn’t listen to their digital hot potato or give them enough power, but it also might have been that they weren’t humble enough to recognise what they could learn from your 20 years experience and work with the organisation.”
— Matt Davis, Director of Comms, Shareaction

The aspiration to devolve ownership of digital is the right strategic goal to aim for, but immediately getting rid of digital teams isn’t the solution. And whilst insufficient digital knowledge persists across organisations – from specific, technical knowledge to the right digital mindset – it will continue to be impossible for digital teams alone to deliver transformational change. For now, we need our digital teams to refocus (if they haven’t already) on how they can support and enable the wider organisation to help themselves.

As you start to be successful in digital transformation there are more people who start to pay attention, which is good… but it also causes a problem and slows things down because more people are involved [in sign off].”

— Laila Takeh, CMO, Raising IT

In short what we really need is:

“more people doing digital, fewer people in the digital team”
— Amanda Neylon, Macmillan Cancer Support


Be curious. Be Proactive. Be transparent and, above all, collaborate.

The nature of ‘digital culture’ was a frequent topic of discussion during the New Reality interviews. No single definition emerged, but four words came up time and again: `curiosity’, ‘proactive’, transparent’ and ‘collaborative’.

The positive, ‘can-do’ attitude of modern digital thinkers and doers was supported in interviews by countless examples where digital champions had tended to “ just get on and do things” – often under the radar, without waiting for permission - with brilliant results:

I’ve put together a group of what I call ‘Ninja innovators’. They’ve all got different skillsets and I’ve given them space separate from the day-to-day issues to deliver some quick wins. It means we’ve got things launching and delivering all the time - while the bigger stuff is rumbling on. It helps to changes attitudes about tech, and it helps the team through the tough times. I don’t ask for board buy in because it doesn’t cost much - we just get on and do it.”
— Rosie Slater, CIO, British Red Cross

The particular emphasis these examples reveal is how finding small ‘low-hanging fruit’ projects which offer digital success stories, pays dividends and helps to build stakeholder buy-in to do more.

Digital without borders

Almost all examples centred around the need to create small, collaborative, cross-discipline and cross-department teams to deliver these projects. This offers the two-fold benefit of feeding years of organisational insight into new digital-enabled work, and in creating a culture of understanding and engagement with digital practice across internal borders. To extract the value of their close engagement with beneficiaries, many contributors placed particular emphasis on involving helpline and frontline staff in these projects.

Transparency in all things

Contributors also raised the need for increased internal and external transparency around these collaborative projects. The open sharing of examples – both successes and failures – from internal tech initiatives can offer guidance, reassurance and even inspiration to other organisations seeking to do the same. It was for precisely this reason that the Government Digital Service put transparency at the heart of it’s GOV.UK programme:

People ask “what problems has being open caused you? Honestly? None! How much difference has it made? A lot. It helps the communication because there are lots of people out there who get it and know what to do, but maybe aren’t senior enough to break through. We give them examples and evidence to give them more power to get things done.”
— Senior spokesperson, Government Digital Service

Having a transparent and open culture was also cited as increasingly vital in light of both personal and aggregate data collection and use:

Data is going to ramp up the transparency agenda. Charities will have to be naked in 5 years time, because people are asking for it.”
— Karl Wilding, Director of Public Affairs, NCVO

Director of Audience Research for Intel, Hannah Scurfield explained the particular importance of this type of transparency for a new generation of potential supporters:

Gen Z [the born on the web generation] believe that they can be agents for change, but they will only engage with brands who are upfront with them. They value honesty, transparency and have a very direct relationship with the organisations they engage with.”
— Hannah Scurfield, Director of Audience Research, Intel

At a time where trust in charities is decreasing those that are able to offer a compelling, honest and real time picture of what they are doing for their beneficiaries and supporters are likely to increase their market share, particularly with younger audiences, at the expense of those who don’t.

To read more around the issue of transparency see Zoe Amar’s JustGiving blog


Curiosity cultivates creativity

The final characteristic that digital culture can offer organisations is curiosity.

The British Library is guardian and champion of millennia of human cultural history - you might expect that they would be one of the organisations who might struggle with this very modern change - but not so.  As an organisation they are embracing digital transformation from their internal culture outwards, and CEO Roly Keating  shared this explanation as to why:

We’re not immune to the headaches that any large organisation with limited resources confronts when trying to do anything in the area of technology. But the community here are curious-minded people, and they are very hungry for any tool that can build new insights into our collections. They are absolutely not precious about whether they are very old tools or very new ones, and it’s an attitude that has created some very digitally adept people who inspire others. Ultimately that’s how gradually you engineer a change in an organisation like this - by fostering curiosity.”
— Roly Keating, CEO, British Library


The New Reality cohort were emphatic in their belief that the benefits of digital transformation cannot be achieved without a far-reaching internal culture shift. There is no magic wand here, achieving a fundamental shift requires curiosity, creativity and commitment from CEOs, trustees and HR – as well as money, time and resources to enable teams to deliver.

More importantly this is a culture change process that needs to involve staff from across departments. Having recently been through a major internal culture shift including a full brand redevelopment, NSPCC’s Head of digital, Helena Raven, had this advice to offer:

You can only create real change when people feel like they’ve done it for themselves. Unless people feel that they own it, then it won’t be successful… We’re not there yet, but our vision is that every volunteer is a digital volunteer. Every fundraiser is a digital fundraiser. And every senior exec understands how digital shapes their business plan.”
— Helena Raven, Head of digital, NSPCC

The shift in culture towards fewer silos, more collaboration, and greater transparency will offer multiple benefits for those staff who are prepared to weather the bumps in the road.


  • Don’t start developing a digital strategy - instead take the organisational strategy and be explicit about how digital technology can help your organisation deliver on that

  • Be transparent: sharing your successes and failures is the new reality – we help others learn and avoid the same mistakes and, in turn, we benefit from the experience of others

  • Be thoughtful about the change process – understand that it won’t work if it’s a set of imposed top down ideas. Consider using external consultants or facilitators

  • Create small, collaborative, cross-discipline and cross-department teams to deliver quick-win projects

  • Annual organisational strategy review – OK so no organisation can consistently reinvent the wheel year on year, but understand what elements of the strategy you can topline review and make sure you do it


For digital champions

  • Start talking to HR about their role in digital transformation today

  • Develop a mantra for your digital staff around facilitation and enablement: acting to support other departments – not doing things on their behalf


For HR

  • Change recruitment and internal job specs to include digital competency by default

  • Set up reverse mentoring between digital experts and senior staff, or set up a cross-departmental buddy system

  • Seek advice on the new skill sets the New Reality demands to ensure you can operate well in a digitally-transformed way

  • Seek out partnerships with innovative companies, universities and other organisations who might help you fill those skills gaps in the short term

Summary: This theme in 6 slides