In 2010, after five years of funding, managing and evaluating digital transformation within education, I reflected on what I’d learned and one adage stood out: technology is simple but people are complex. Fast-forward another five years (this time working on digital services in charities and social enterprises) and I’ve refined it further: empathy is at the heart of successful digital transformation. This was emphasised at yesterday’s Steering Group for New Philanthropy Capital’s Digital Transformation Programme (which I’m privileged to be a part of) where two messages particularly resonated with me:

  1. ‘Digital’ transformation can be a problematic because it runs the risk of focussing on digital for its own sake
  2. The needs of real people should be the starting point for any transformation programme.

In short: technology is not intrinsically good or bad, it’s the alignment of technology with people’s needs that gives it value . . . and key to understanding people’s needs is empathy.

Don’t believe me? Andrew Lund of Google Enterprise shared his insights at Catch22’s recent Chairman’s Event, saying that effective digital transformation depends on three factors: technology transformation; cultural transformation; business transformation.

Google Enterprise Digital Transformation diagram

Google sees that technology is just one part of a larger picture within digital transformation. Too often organisations assume that transformation can be achieved by simply dropping technology in to their existing business and culture, when in reality this is what leads to expensive failures. I worked on a team that invested £20 million into teacher training over five years, supporting over 50,000 trainees via over 200 teacher training organisations and managed the evaluation of this investment. The key things most likely to lead to successful introduction of digital technology were:

  • Did it meet the needs of staff?
  • Did it meet the needs of trainee teachers?
  • Did staff and trainees have the time and support to learn how to use it?
  • Was it supported by senior management?

The digital technology itself was way down the list of factors. People and their needs were much more important. The teacher training organisations that achieved the most positive digital transformation were those that built the strongest empathy with trainees and staff.

Julie Dodd has created research more recently and more relevant to the charity sector called ‘The New Reality’, finding that successful transformation depends on four factors:

  1. Mindset
  2. People
  3. Process
  4. Tools

Once again we see that tools (including digital technology) play the smallest part in transformation, with people, processes and mind-set playing the major part. Technology has value when it aligns with the needs of people, and people’s needs are understood by building empathy with them.

Empathy is at the heart of successful digital transformation, which gives the charity sector a competitive edge over other sectors. None of us do our jobs because we want to get rich, we do it because we’re interested in people. Digital transformation is underpinned by conversations with staff and service users, building empathy and understanding their needs in order to create skills training for staff and service users, re-design business processes, redevelop organisational culture . . . and choosing some cool new tech.