Going digital? This expert says you should transform your organizational culture first

The CEO of Technology Helps, a consulting firm focused on helping non-profits upgrade their tech, shares tips for getting your culture ready

Why It Matters

The digital-first reality is here to stay post-pandemic. Social impact organizations are still struggling in the transition to an online world. A recent survey by CanadaHelps found that one in three charities believe they’ll soon find it harder to continue their work if they don’t improve their digital capabilities. A majority rated their digital skill level as either “fair” or “poor.”

This story is in partnership with IBM Canada. 

Charles Buchanan left the corporate world, where he worked as a computer engineer, back in 2016 to do something very different — help non-profits adapt to a rapidly digitizing environment. 

Buchanan is the founder of Technology Helps, a consulting firm that does just that: works with non-profit and charitable organizations to help them implement new technology systems. Of course, this work took on a whole new meaning when the pandemic began. 

But Buchanan says it’s important that organizations don’t jump into a major tech upgrade before their people are genuinely ready. We sat down (digitally) with him to learn more about what this actually means and what organizations can expect coming out of COVID.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Kylie Adair: You work with non-profits and charities on digital transformation. How often do you come across organizations whose culture simply isn’t ready?

Charles Buchanan: It is something that comes up a lot. It is something that’s very important, and something that people don’t really pay as much attention to as they should. One of the reasons is that digital transformation in the non-profit sector comes out of necessity. It’s thrust upon them — like the radical transformation that we worked through and facilitated in March and April of 2020, when the world changed for organizations and they suddenly found themselves with their back against the wall, and they had to find ways to exist and provide services without skipping a beat, for their people. So, it’s usually not done with a lot of foresight, planning, or a lot of money. 

A lot of it also comes from where these organizations sit on the economic spectrum in the first place — what we call technology poverty, where they don’t have the people, they don’t have the skill, they don’t have the infrastructure. They’re looking at going from archaic to modern in a single step, and that is very difficult for them. 

Kylie: Can you tell me more about March of 2020? What were some of the challenges you helped organizations through?

Charles: People are used to working in close proximity to each other, so it was the concept of having to work remotely, communicate digitally, the idea of sharing files, the discomfort of not being able to verify things [in person]. It was compounded, definitely, by the fact that people were just physically displaced from their workplaces. Working in an unfamiliar environment with equipment that’s, in a lot of cases, not designed for that — home computers that they’re sharing with their families — that was quite a big deal, quite traumatic for some people. It changed the way they see themselves. It also forced a lot of people to think about how they connect, or how they maintain what used to be their organizational culture, now in a virtual space. It basically lays [bare] a lot of assumptions that people had about culture — like, we thought we had a culture, but our culture was just based on people showing up to the same place. But they were not truly working toward a common mandate or common goal. 

For example, an organization we worked with had been used to working somewhat virtually (in a hybrid model before it became defined as such) and believed they had a tight-knit, collaborative team that understood the mission and how the organization worked. With their office closure in March of 2020 and the addition of several new people in key roles since, they found out that what they thought was common understanding was subject to the interpretation of the employee. New people ended up having a skewed and sometimes biased view of the organization and its workings. Steps to correct have included documentation of processes, bolstering of the onboarding process and increasing the length to several months, frequent check-ins with staff from senior leaders — even the ones who have no direct interaction with the employee day-to-day.

Kylie: How can organizations avoid that kind of rude awakening?

Charles: What is essential is that people understand how they work in an analog mode, before digitization. You don’t have to do an exhaustive study, but you have to understand, these are the steps you take. Because when things are digitized, suddenly, there are things that are no longer necessary. It does give the ability for interrelationships to be identified, between systems, groups, and people. And those interactions, they may be difficult in the analog way, but now we have the ability to make them very easy. So there’s a lot of power, more than we’re used to having — the ability to do more. But also, at times, your definition of your job may be tied to things that are not core — your job function. When the core functions of your job are now digitized, you can feel quite displaced or disoriented, or you have to reconnect yourself with your work.

For example, a big job in our sector is the creation of reports for funders and other stakeholders. Most of this work can be replaced with a business intelligence (or analytics) application. However, the app won’t know data context or what is meaningful information. This worker can perform more valuable work by becoming less of a report creator and more of a data analyst, providing interpretation, context and using their experience with the aid of the digital tools, to generate greater insights

I’ve had a rule for many, many years that I will not digitize a bad process. We had one organization that came to us and asked for a digital strategy, and that was 18 months ago — we just started to work on it today, because we rejected them. 

Kylie: What are some other markers of an organization that’s not ready for a digital transformation?

Charles: One would be their ability to maintain a digital upgrade: if they have a revolving door [of staff leaving the organization], or if they don’t have the skills and training, or if they haven’t budgeted for what their work will be like post-upgrade. Another is an organization that is overly paternalistic in its approach to the programs and the people, and [assumes staff and program participants are] going to love it. A lot of times, you’ll see new leadership come from a place that was better off technologically, and they say, I’m going to implement what was at the old place — but it would be prudent for them to understand their organization before they make such dramatic changes. It’s good for them to understand the problem they’re trying to solve, understand the changes they’re trying to make, and what they’re trying to gain from this. 

Kylie: Are there mindsets that are particular to the non-profit world that organizations should address before diving into digital? 

Charles: The scarcity mindset and the overhead mindset — where technology is to be secondary. They could start seeing [technology] as power to be harnessed, as opposed to something to be feared. There’s also the problem of not having the room to innovate or to experiment. To a certain degree, people are so stretched that nobody has the capacity to do that. A lot of agencies do really silly things — they bring in a summer student to do the experimental work, the innovative work, but they’re someone who has no industry knowledge. They don’t create that room [in their core teams] for innovation and experimentation. 

Kylie: What kind of issues does that — assigning the digital transformation work only to the young people on the team — present, culture-wise? What sort of team dynamic does that create?

Charles: It just marginalizes [the digital transformation], that’s all it does. It becomes something that you let your kids play with. The people in power should be advocating, sponsoring, and making this happen.

Kylie: How does an organization get everyone on board?

Charles: One of the approaches that we’ve taken is making sure everyone understands, first and foremost, why they’re doing it and why it matters to the people in each role. When we work with organizations, we run the risk of our work being undervalued — so we make an extra effort to make sure the work we’re doing is understood so it can be impactful. We make sure we have people who are engaged, influential people who are stakeholders. We build champions, and we educate the champions, we listen to them, and we make sure they understand what is happening, why it’s happening, and how it affects them. We say that our team are technically trained social workers. 

And then we also ask, who else should be at the table? Who does this affect, and why are they not represented [in this process]? Technology change in an organization is not unlike social change. How do you make lasting social change happen? You include people, you understand people, you understand the effects of what you’re trying to do. And then communicate, listen, learn, evolve.