Digital strategy can support communications in think tanks. But can it also improve their research and management too?

15 June 2012

“Digital is not another channel, it is the delivery choice for this generation” – Francis Maude, UK Minister for Cabinet Office, 11 June 2012

What is a ‘digital strategy’?

I’ve used the word ‘digital’ in a number of blogs on this site without ever actually defining what I mean by it. Here are two definitions given by Google, both reflecting important aspects what I see as digital:

  1. Relating to or using signals or information represented by discrete values (digits) of a physical quantity, such as voltage or magnetic polarization, to represent arithmetic numbers or approximations to numbers from a continuum or logical expressions and variables
    – digital TV
  2. Involving or relating to the use of computer technology
    – the digital revolution

When I use the word ‘digital’, I bring these two definitions together and extend them. The first definition, which describes information stored in an electronic form, is very broad. The second definition can be used to specify that information is created through the use of computer technology. For my purposes, a third definition is useful, which is to specify the delivery of electronic information using computer technology.

It is in the capability to connect, transmit and receive information that the power of the ‘digital revolution’ lies. It is not computers creating information, but the connecting and networking of them, particularly through the internet, that is causing so many problems for newspaper owners as news is increasingly delivered on the Internet and under-cutting traditional business models.

So ‘digital’ can sometimes be another word for the ‘information technology’ (in software, not the hardware of computers and servers) and at other times can be another word for ‘online’. A ‘digital strategy’ should be a strategy that combines elements of old Information Technology strategies with elements of Online strategies developed over the past years, particularly in the realm of communications. A digital strategy takes a holistic view of how computers connected to each other through the Internet or otherwise can support an organisation’s mission, vision and values.

Digital strategy for think tanks

Though my previous blogs have focused on digital communications strategies, there are clearly wider uses for a digital strategy in any organisation, and think tanks are no exception. In particular, there are two other key strands of the work of a think tank were there are serious opportunities in the implementation of a fit-for-purpose and dynamic digital strategy: in the day-to-day management of the organisation, and the process of research itself. Enrique Mendizabal has introduced some ways digital tools could be used by think tanks, and how different types of think tanks may want to focus their engagement on certain types of digital tools:

  • More academic centres should start 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.

Why bother? What does a digital strategy bring?

Enrique offers some good places to suggestions as to where to place initial effort. In my mind, the power of a good digital strategy is that it can do three things for think tanks: it can improve agilitybuy time for under-resourced staff and provide additional opportunities for collaboration.

A is for agility

Think tanks are not exceptional organisations. They share the same needs in their management, research and communications with thousands of other organisations – and where there is a demand for solutions to meet these needs, there is a market in offering them. Increasingly providers in these markets are providing services digitally. For the cost of a subscription (and even, in some cases, for free), an person or organisation can buy in and quickly set themselves up to manage job advertisements and application processing (e.g. Zoho Recruit), track key research topics (TwitterGoogle Alerts), deliver a website (SquareSpaceWordPressGoogle Sites), or any one of a myriad of other applications. This doesn’t require an IT department: many tools are consumer-focused, so they are there for individuals to set up themselves.

In return, there can be a loss of flexibility, as organisational processes or ways of working might need to alter to work with the solution, rather than the other way around. But there are a lot of solutions out there, so it is worth looking around to find the perfect one. Effort and spending will be concentrated on configuring the solution and providing training and support to staff around the solution and changes to processes. This can be advantageous in the long run: digital tools tend to implement best practice approaches to the problems they set out to solve, and tailoring a organisational process to best practice is no bad thing.

By moving to a subscription model, organisations are freeing themselves up to change their minds. Yes, moving from one system to another is burdensome and can be costly – digital solutions don’t alter that – but they do make it easier. There are two reasons for this:

  1. When you don’t have to think about the computers, servers or bespoke software development, and can replace one part of a wider system, the decision to move can be easier. Many digital solutions are built from the ground up with portability in mind: you can export data in one system, and other systems will be able to import it.
  2. Digital solutions are not designed to be all-encompassing tools that are impossible to manage or move from. Instead there are discrete solutions for discrete tasks, which can, where necessary, connect to each other. You can swap out one solution for another without affecting everyone (for example, change your intranet without affecting your website).

B is for buying time

As more and more day-to-day engagements with funders, partners, audiences, peers and colleagues take place across the Internet and using digital channels, there is a danger of a massive increase in burden on staff. Managing so many different people through so many different systems isn’t easy: tweet to some followers; email your funders; collaborate in writing a paper on a wiki with some external research peers; send a message through the intranet top your peers. One of the best things about digital solutions is that they are part of a digital ecosystem. It is in their interest to avoid silos; they embrace and connect with each other – making it possible to connect in multiple ways with minimal effort. Software on a server often doesn’t do that as easily or seamlessly.

In addition, organisations using digitally delivered solutions buy into a continually upgraded platform, outsourcing all hardware maintenance and software development. That saves a lot of time and effort on technical and IT teams, who can concentrate instead on getting IT to work for the staff of an organisation, rather than procuring servers and setting them up for the myriad uses a small organisation may have of them.

C is for collaboration

Collaboration is part of the lifeblood of research, as ideas are shared and built upon. Collaboration is therefore essential to think tanks. Luckily, digital solutions have partnership and collaboration baked in from the start, allowing quick and easy collaboration in working with others both within the organisation and outside of it.

As they are set up to allow multiple users at the same time (in a way that is not possible with a spreadsheet), you can easily collaborate on drawing up a budget, collecting references for research, or producing content for a newsletter.  Finally, as digital solutions are generally online, they are accessible anywhere you have an internet connection. This makes it easier to implement more flexible ways of working, including home working, or to make connections with people outside the office or organisation. All of which can improve the effectiveness of an organisation in day-to-day working.

D is for the dangers – of which, more to come!

As with any IT-related innovations, implementing a digital strategy can be problematic – the devil is often in the detail of how work is planned and carried out.  I wouldn’t want to finish this blog without acknowledging that many dangers exist, and need to be guarded against.

Enrique Mendizabal, Peter da Costa and Vaqar Ahmed and I will be running a session on digital think tanks at next week’s Think Tank Initiative’s global exchange in Cape Town. Apart from providing an overview of digital strategy and hearing about think tank experiences, one of the things I am most interested to hear from the participants is what they see as the dangers of digital strategy, and to discuss ways these might be mitigated against. Rather than fill out an incomplete list of things to look out for now, I’ll report back after the session on what we find out – stay tuned!