Unleashing the potential of digital and tech in the quest for at-scale and high-impact social value creation

Takeaways from the C&E Advisory Breakfast Dialogue, 4th June 2020.

Covid-19 – the great disruptor - has accelerated an imperative that organisations in all sectors now face: how to draw on the power of digital and tech to address their social, environmental and commercial challenges and opportunities – including their sustainability and SDG related goals.

C&E Advisory convened seasoned engagement, innovation and Responsible Business professionals and executive leaders from across the corporate and third sector, including: World Food Programme, Walgreens Boots Alliance, NSPCC, Comic Relief, Experian, GSMA among others, to collectively explore this topic and share experiences.

Key take-outs from the dialogue, which was moderated by Manny Amadi, C&E’s CEO include: 

  • Shifting from ‘project’ to ‘product’ thinking and funding

  • Being crystal clear and aligned on ‘where are we going’ before setting off

  • Remaining rigorously ‘close to the user’

  • Ensuring balance in the adoption and use of technology

  • Aligning across functions and around outcomes and approaches

Cain Ullah, CEO of Red Badger, a highly sought-after digital innovation and transformation leader, and Vice Chair of the Society of Digital Agencies, ignited the session by introducing 4 key themes that were then explored by all participants and informed the above take-outs. 

1. The role and value of digital transformation in addressing societal impact issues at scale

Digital is now fundamental to delivering almost any service. User experience on the web and on smartphones means almost any service has a digital element to it. To do digital transformation properly is to improve user experience (or people’s lives) and to deliver it with great efficiency.

In an HSBC example, a one-to two-month manual process, including customer visits to branches, became a 10-minute online process, improving conversion rates and user experience dramatically. Equally it can be used to join up initiatives across the country to share best practices such as in social mobility to advise corporates on how to tackle the issue and foster collaboration projects.

Digital delivery levels the playing field and reduces inequality as those with less privilege gain access to services that were previously only available to the more privileged. It is repeatable and re-usable, and once a digital product or platform is built the cost of scaling it is marginal.

Digital was broadly recognised by all participants as a key component in achieving organizational outcomes and societal impact, whether addressing supply chain risks, limiting the use of energy and carbon emission, helping diabetics self-manage their conditions, enabling money transfer between urban workers and their relatives in rural villages, or simply improving consumer, user, beneficiary or patient experiences. The discussion centred on learnings taken from the practices and approaches experienced by all participants.

2. The factors that underpin success in digital adoption and sustainable implementation

Digital products must be both desirable and have a great user experience. They need to be both easy to use and fulfil a need that the users have. To build a great experience, user experience professionals and product designers should be integrated into teams. This ensures user-centred design practices, researching and testing the experiences users want. Desirability is wider than just the user experience of the digital product, it looks at the problem being addressed and whether it is even the right problem to be looking at in the first place.

Leveraging modern technology with the aim of making platforms and products adaptable and continuously improving makes digital sustainable. With open source and cloud services the need to spend £millions on an off-the-shelf platform is removed and instead, a Lego-like kit is available that adapts to the needs of an organisation and the people whose lives it impacts.

With the progression of technology and approaches, the price of impact has dramatically reduced, and the speed to impact has dramatically increased. Best practice in digital is to release new value every single day, instead of 3-4 times a year, which used to be the norm. Incremental and regular change also brings with it less risk and avoids the chance of catastrophic digital transformation failures that are so often in the news.

Participants reflected on whether target end-users are engaged in conceiving, designing and building digital solutions. The common experience of participants was that digital initiatives were often instigated by stakeholders within their organizations. These stakeholders develop their views and thinking, often becoming the primary source defining the solution being sought. When this happens, the voice of the user is missed, leading to inefficiencies and a lack of impact.

Recognising that it can be especially hard to engage users with lower social capital or in environments that are hard to reach, participants shared examples of direct access to users, such as farmers in Kenya and humanitarian efforts in Somaliland, leading to very valuable insights only gained from being present in the users’ context. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is through existing networks who already have direct access. Every time a user is engaged, the insight gained mitigates the risks of building something that is not wanted or will not work.

3. How to avoid the all too prevalent risk of building the wrong thing, ensuring digital innovation delivers focused impact and outcomes

Building on assumptions about user requirements without validating them can result in £millions of pounds spent on new digital initiatives that gain very little traction when they go live. There is equal value in not building the wrong thing as there is in building the right thing.

A design thinking and innovation process validates ideas. It seeks three key things: Desirability - is there a demand for the idea in the market? Feasibility - can it be built? and Viability - does it support the business case or objectives? An example was an 8-week innovation process where 17 products where built to test whether the ideas were desirable. 12 were proved not to be. If the build of those 12 projects had gone ahead, each with a 7-figure budget, the client would have spent £10s of millions proving what they should not build. Instead they could now focus on the 5 products with known desirability because they were tested.

Another recent extreme example of things going badly was Bo, RBS’s digital bank that was supposed to rival Monzo. After over £100m spent and only 11,000 customers, it was closed down 5 months after launch.

Participants highlighted the need for, and value of, alignment and consensus. Where stakeholders have been engaged at the start of a digital initiative there can often arise a long list of desirable features that do not necessarily focus on where the genuine value lies. Knowing what is truly important, helps set up metrics for success (a North Star) and sets expectations around what can otherwise be perceived as a ‘disappointing’ Minimum Viable Product offering.

Staying focused on what’s important and how users are using a feature also offers opportunities for high-impact improvements. For instance, some very simple personalization around time of day and location of users drove a dramatic improvement in KPIs achieved by a local exchange marketplace solution rolled out across Brazil.

It was recognized by many in the group that innovation initiatives can leave a funding and operations gap once a successful initiative is ready to be to be scaled. For some there was a clear path to BAU laid out prior to commissioning innovation initiatives, although for many, gated funding streams that followed innovation funding and aligned the impact achieved were a worthwhile consideration.

4. Whether a gap exists between sustainability / programmatic professionals and their product /tech specialists – and if so, how to bridge the gap

Departmental silos are an extremely common problem. The gap exists in most organizations that embark on digital initiatives. A department often has budgets and lines of responsibility for a portion of a digital initiative that then gets ‘thrown over the fence’ to another department to carry out a different portion they are responsible for. An example of this is a programmatic professional commissioning IT to build something that they have defined, often in a lengthy specification document. IT then assumes this is the right thing to build and executes exactly what is in the specification within a target budget and timeline.

In this approach, no one takes responsibility for the end-goal. They do their bit and then hand it over. This approach often results in frustrations between the departments and blame between them that the other is under performing. This approach can be called ‘project thinking’ and the efficiency of delivering value is generally greatly reduced in this model.

Organizational and team structure as well as the culture of the teams, is a key part of helping deliver digital transformation. It requires the breaking down of departmental silos and a move to a cross-functional team approach that has members from each department working in the same team toward a shared outcome.

This approach can be called ‘product thinking’. Product thinking is outcome focused. It is entirely aligned to the goal being sought. If programmatic professionals and product/tech specialists are all in the same team, working toward solving the same problem alongside the other stakeholders, there is a much higher chance of success. The whole team is responsible and accountable for the outcome, working together toward a common goal.

Many participants reflected on the need for and benefits of cross-collaboration. From aligning stakeholders to ensuring the processes being used for innovation and service development were well understood by everyone. 

The use of innovation funds also highlighted the need for integrated thinking and planning. Where they are used effectively, they unlock and fund high-impact, new ways of approaching problems.

There was a powerful case made for the use of non-technical language in how the organization and the IT function communicate with each other. There’s a sense of some convergence as the ‘business’ side becomes more familiar with technology and technologists recognise the need for alignment, perhaps fueled by a structural shift occurring as the younger generation enters employment.

Another organizational tension was highlighted between IT and Finance functions, when the IT costs necessary to deliver the service being designed seem excessive or at least inexplicable. Perhaps a move towards less technical language and more impact and value-led funding streams is a way to bridge this gap.

The dialogue touched on some related aspects of digital delivery such as data privacy and identity. This was especially highlighted as a requirement for refugees and beneficiaries in hard to reach environments, potentially with a political implication to being identifiable. These humanitarian related concerns span the use of biometrics, personal data ownership, trust (in state and large corporations) and technology - with no simple solutions.

In our current lockdown response, the role of human connection and the balance of screen-based vs personal engagement that will be required in whatever future becomes our ‘new normal’ was highlighted as a key concern. In particular, the requirement for ‘difficult conversations’ being held over screens does not seem sustainable.

In summary, unleashing the potential of digital and tech in the quest for at-scale and high-impact social value creation requires that organizations in all sectors should move from ‘project’ to ‘product’ funding and thinking; be crystal clear and aligned on ‘where are we going’ before setting off; remain rigorously ‘close to the user’, ensure balance in the adoption and use of tech; and align across function, outcomes and approaches.

Further reading from Red Badger:

Product innovation framework
Product thinking 


About the Breakfast Dialogue Series
C&E’s Breakfast Dialogue series are free, by invitation, informal discussions held over a light breakfast and involving a dozen or so senior participants from corporate, NGO and public-sector backgrounds. They are highly interactive, informed discussions in which participants share their perspectives, experiences, and insights – under Chatham House Rules.