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Digital think tanks

I have been asked to present and facilitate a session on digital think tanks at the Think Tank Initiative’s global exchange in Cape Town next week. Nick Scott, Peter da Costa and Vaqar Ahmed will be co-facilitating. We will all try to write about our session and share our experience with you (So far: Digital strategy can support communications in think tanks. But can it also improve their research and management too?5 top tips for think tanks using social mediaSocial Media and think tanks: lessons from London Thinks). From the workshop agenda:

Moderator: Peter K.A. da Costa: Africa-based Consultant, Hewlett Foundation


Vaqar Ahmed: Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)
Enrique Mendizabal: Mendizabal Ltd, On Think Tanks blog
Nick Scott: Overseas Development Institute (ODI)


The workshop will articulate why think tanks should develop and implement a digital strategy. It will focus on ways in which digital approaches and tools can strengthen the three core business functions of think tanks – management, research and in particular communications. Participants will have the opportunity to update their knowledge on the state of the art, seek advice on the choices and trade-offs to be made given their specific external as well as internal contexts, and determine how best to pursue a digital strategy in their specific organizational context.


  1. Provide a starting point for think tanks to begin thinking of a digital strategy that fits their context, capacity and institutional needs
  2. Help think tanks determine when, if and how they should take advantage of various digital tools and applications for management, research and communication of their work, internally as well as externally

I have taken on the role to set the scene (or make the case, if I can) for investing in a digital strategy. For it I need to first borrow from Nick Scott‘s definition of digital (but only a small section of a much longer one that he emailed to me (and in draft) -keep an eye on this blog for the long and proper version):

A ‘digital strategy’ should be a strategy that combines old Information Technology strategies with newer Online strategies and takes a holistic view of how computers connected to each other through the Internet and otherwise can support an organisation’s mission, vision and values

With this in mind: The key argument I want to make is that digital is not just about IT for communications. Digital-speak tends to be introduced to a think tank via the communication team or the IT department (or ‘guy’ -who remembers the company’s computer guy sketch? Nick Burns, the company’s computer guy was the one who knew how to use information technologies (computers) and succeeded in keeping the rest of the staff in the dark and afraid of all things IT). So not surprisingly we think that this is all about reaching broader and less informed audiences: the shallow and fickle twitterati.

Thinking of digital in this way limits what new technologies can do for a think tank. Hence our suggestion for this session is that we do not just limit our discussion to communications but also two other core internal think tank functions: management and research.

Digital tools can help these three internal functions and, what is more, they can do it in a way that support each other. For example, Twitter can be used to find information (research), disseminate it (communication), and keep team members connected and informed of a project’s activities (management). DropBox or Google Drive (the new version of Google Docs) can be used as an intranet for an organisation (management), to collaborate in the drafting of a study (research), and as a way of storing the public versions of key documents (communication).

It is when they work together that they achieve their potential for the organisation.

But not all think tanks can nor should do it all at once. Another important discussion we will have at the session is ‘what is appropriate for whom’? I have used the following table to describe the different functions that think tanks play and the spaces they fill in society (think tanks are somewhere in that shaded area):

It follows that think tanks that:

  • More academic centres should stat by exploring how digital tools help them research
  • More contract driven think tanks could first consider how to improve project management by using digital tools
  • More advocacy oriented think tanks should look into digital tools for communications

We will explore this at the event.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. amco2000 #

    Sorry to say, but the term “Digital Thinktanks” is an extreme platitude that I think is very confusing ! Nothing “digital” at all about Thinktanks (one rapidly thinks of digital electronic circuitry and flashing lights). Of course the term digital is much abused, but that´s exactly the reason NOT to propagate the platitude ! In plain English, I think we are talking about Internet (or even Cloud) -based Thinktanks. But maybe even better, Virtual Thinktanks would be the neatest term ? Unfortunately the term “digital” is multiplied here … through to digital tools, meaning in plain English Internet or Cloud tools ?!? Sorry guys, but let´s keep both feet on the ground, and clearly rooted in plain English !

    As for Nick Scott´s definition of a “digital strategy”, yet more thick jargon !?! Please re-express this in plain English for my understanding. (BTW, I´m actually a humble computer systems engineer, but I beleive that finally plain English should prevail over mystical ICT jargon)


    June 15, 2012
    • Unfortunately this is one of those things where some jargon will be used. Virtual think tanks? I have used the term before, but that makes me think of organisation’s that do not have a physical precence -and that does not work here. Cloud think tanks? There is certainly an aspect of that, but it’s is not just about the cloud/online since some think tanks, depending on where they are, do not have steady access to it.

      Digital? I do not know, to be honest. The point of the session and of several posts on this blog will be to attempt to figure it out… So comments like these help. Thanks. Maybe we are too vaugue.

      Maybe after Nick’s post you can add a new comment and help us out.


      June 15, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Digital strategy is good for think tank communications. But can it be good for think tank research and management too? « on think tanks
  2. Social Media and think tanks: lessons from London Thinks « on think tanks
  3. Day one of the Think Tank Initiative’s exchange (@TTIX2012) « on think tanks
  4. How a digital strategy can enhance think tank management, research and communication « on think tanks
  5. The On Think Tanks Interview: Gilles Yabi from West Africa Citizen Think Tank | on think tanks

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