Digital needs to retool for organisational development

In 2014, having just hobbled over the line marking my two decades in digital to achieve veteran status, I was made redundant... by me. At the time, I was the Global Director of Digital Communications for an International NGO and came to the realisation that the existence of my role and department was the biggest impediment to wholesale adoption of digital as a discipline across my organisation. Now, to many who know me, I'm 'that Amnesty guy who sacked himself in the name of digital transformation'. 

Two and a half years have passed: nearly an average employment tenure or, put another way, more than a couple of smartphone generations ago. I'm often asked to comment on how my experiment is going, but I can't legitimately speak on behalf of my erstwhile employer given that I'm very much gone. Aside from being a model of diplomacy, I've since established Therein, an independent consultancy that helps organisations with a civic remit to embed digital into their strategic plans. In doing so, I've had exposure to many more flavours of digital transformation than the mere one I presided over. There's been a quiet, but seismic shift in this time.

Digital Is Disappearing

Anyone who has seen me present before may have seen the slide where I boldly declare that Digital Is Disappearing. It makes for a great soundbite but surely a bit of a reductionist argument, particularly in terms of organisations and how they operate. Similarly, the 'if everything is digital then nothing is' maxim is surely too simplistic and could just as easily be applied to People and HR, Customer Service, Branding or any other discipline that should be modelled and embodied throughout the workforce, right? Wrong.

Digital, by way of an organisational discipline, is different for three reasons. Firstly, unlike the aforementioned disciplines, digital, as the consumer friendly face of technology, goes beyond business and organisations, stretching deeply into society. Secondly, because of this, it shapes and influences behaviours in us (more a reflection of psychology than technology), whereas the others are primarily concerned with responding to behavioural change on behalf of their host organisation. Thirdly, the future impacts of digital are largely unknown. Granted, a quick scan of the Gartner Hype Cycle tells anyone who's interested which technologies are coming downstream. That said, we know much less about the successful ways in which these technologies might be applied, and even less about the ways in which these applications will change our behaviours as end users.

Retooling for OD

I'm guessing, but I don't believe the majority of in-house digital professionals are closet behavioural psychologists. Yet, despite this, they are probably the most qualified people in the room to educate and inform about the ways in which technologies are likely to change the behaviours of customers and constituents. Remember, it's not simply about name-checking what's coming down the tech-superhighway - swathes of non-digital folk can confidently drop the words blockchain, internet of things or AI into casual biz-speak. But it's a great deal harder, and clearly more essential, to:-

  1. Identify relevant and strategically aligned opportunities;
  2. Navigate a path towards their implementation; and
  3. Enable structures to support the impacts on customers and therefore the organisation.

The flip-side to this is that we also need functional experts to take ownership of technological impacts within their domain, becoming as digitally confident during work-hours as they are when they leave the office. In essence, this requires that in-house digital professionals retool for organisational development. Especially if, as we're told, change is the only constant.

Four Things

There are four things all digital staffers must do to legitimately reinvent their roles within organisations, and promote themselves in the eyes of Senior Leadership Teams.


  • Tame the digital lexicon: Terms like User Experience Design only make people think it has nothing to do with their day-job. Stop it.
  • Really communicate with the SLT: Want to be heard by the people who run the organisation? Then learn their language and adopt their terminologies.
  • Really communicate with the business: Want to be heard by the entire organisation? Then use plain language when conveying your message.
  • Articulate benefits through their eyes: Explain where, how and why technology will help them to achieve their objectives. 


  • Take a representative snapshot of the organisation: Don't just listen to the motives of the progressive and influential within your organisation, make sure you hear the quieter, and more conservative voices.
  • Avoid imposing your version of change: Taking a digital wrecking-ball to your current operating model is usually unnecessary, unless it's completely broken. Most are breaking in slow-motion - don't overdo it.
  • Facilitate scenario-planning: Help others to visualise the role technology can play in their desired states, whilst highlighting where it's likely to reinvent the status quo, addressing weaknesses and mitigating threats along the way.


  • Develop your transformation story: Help the organisation to create a compelling and unified vision for the future, weaving technology into the narrative. 
  • Make HR/OD equal partners in its delivery: Work alongside those who manage people and talent, helping them to build structural and systemic change into their programmes in response to technology-led business transformation. 
  • Start, Stop, Continue and Change: Launch new strategically aligned programmes, thwart pet projects, reverse-test legacy initiatives and consolidate similar areas of work where possible. 
  • Road-test the transformation story: Change programmes need social proof. Turn theory into practice with an agile, focused, cross-collaborative team delivering a project that exemplifies the transformation. 


  • Relinquish control, with control: Manage the loss of complete oversight, in order to avoid graceless and counterproductive land-grabs for the digital domain. This is about progressive redistribution, not a free for all. 
  • Develop a comprehensive digital governance model: Prior to loosening your grip on the digital reins, there'll be a requirement to put working practices and protocols in place, regarding the action or manner of managing digital platforms, tools, systems and processes. 
  • Allow it to gestate: Don't be languid, as the world will move on whether you are ready to do so or not. Then again, don't expect an immediate turnaround. Being digital by default is a strategic no-brainer, but requires a seismic cultural shift. Culture, as the old saying goes, eats strategy for breakfast.

Changing the Narrative

Digital, by way of a descriptor, is useful shorthand but increasingly meaninglessness. The word itself is really a red herring and will naturally fall out of use when it completely loses meaning and currency. For now, despite the climate in which I initiated change in 2014, there's still a job to do in changing the narrative from that of digital as a function to digital as an enabler. Let's get going.

This article first appeared in presentation form at CharityComms Digital Conference 2016

Owen Pringle