Take a digital health check

Paul Boag

How digitally healthy is your organisation? Is it prepared for the changes digital is bringing? Here are the questions that will give you the answers.

This article was originally published on Smashing Magazine.

How digitally healthy is your organisation? For those of you who are freelancers or working at an agency, what about the health of your clients?

I’m not talking about the latest mobile application or having a responsive website. I’m talking about the organisation that sits behind these digital tools. If the organisation is not digitally healthy, even the best technology and design will fail.

As digital professionals we like to complain that the organisations with whom we work are a hindrance. But are they? Exactly how digitally friendly are the companies that we work for?

We need a way of identifying where the organisational problems are. A way of knowing exactly how digitally healthy an organisation is.

Before I help a client go through the process of digital transformation, I need to understand where the problems lie. I do this using a digital health check. Below I outline the areas I investigate, the questions I ask and what those questions can reveal.

My hope is that this health check will help you better understand the organisations with whom you work.

How digitally friendly is their organisational structure?

We need a large number of different disciplines to manage digital. Digital is not just an IT or comms tool. It needs designers, developers, content writers, marketeers, project managers, data specialists and other experts. All must work together.

Unfortunately in many organisations the department structure gets in the way. Different specialists work within different business silos limiting collaboration. Departments are often in competition for limited resources and relationships are tense.

To understand if this is the case in your organisation try asking some of the following questions.

  • Give me an overview of all individuals who work with digital. Who do they report to?
  • Who manages the key digital assets like email, social media, the website, intranet etc?
  • How is digital overseen? Is there a steering group or does it report into a specific department?
  • Are there working groups where specialists come together to work on specific projects?
  • Is there a good working relationship between marketing and IT?

If the answers show there is only limited cooperation, you will find making use of digital challenging.

Do they think digital first?

Many organisations bolt digital onto their existing business model. Employees are so entrenched in their thinking that they fail to consider digital as a better solution. Perhaps they should consider live chat help rather than a call centre or a thriving blog instead of endless press releases.

The point is that if digital is not in the front of people’s minds, it will never reach its full potential. To understand if that is the case in the organisations for which you work, try asking these questions.

  • What updates appear on the organisations social media channels? Is it just a list of announcements and news?
  • Does senior management have a good grasp of digital?
  • Is the website invested in on an ongoing basis?
  • How does investment in digital compare to traditional communication methods (e.g. offline advertising)
  • Is digital isolated in a single department or do people use digital across the whole organisation?
  • How much do employees use digital as part of their daily jobs?

If employees and management rarely consider digital it will create problems (if it has not already).

Do they have a digital framework?

Because digital is new to organisations, you often find that it lacks a support framework found in other parts of the business. Instead decisions on digital are often made on an ad-hoc, reactive basis.

For example in your average university, a huge effort goes into the production of their printed prospectus. There are processes to ensure the quality and consistency of what goes out. Yet those same universities allow pretty much anyone to post content online. This despite the fact that many more people will see the site than will ever open a prospectus.

A digital framework consists of guides, policies and processes needed to support digital projects. They outline what needs doing and methods for achieving digital goals.

To understand what kind of framework is in place (if any) explore the following areas.

  • What oversight is there for digital?
  • How is brand kept consistent across digital assets?
  • What policies do you have for content creation and removal online?
  • What governance surrounds your use of social media?
  • What are your digital business objectives and KPIs?
  • Who is your target audience and what are their goals?
  • How do you ensure compliance with legal requirements?
  • How is technical infrastructure decided?
  • Who decides if a digital project happens?
  • What justification must exist for new digital projects?

If there are not clear answers to these kinds of questions, it should ring warning bells. Not all organisations will have answered all these questions. But there should at least be signs that they are thinking about these issues.

How do they see their digital team?

A good indicator of an organisations digital health is how they perceive their digital team. Many organisations see their digital team as a service department. Their job is to deliver other people’s vision for digital. They are implementers.

This leads to the people who shout the loudest or have the most authority setting digital priorities. Experience and understanding of digital become secondary considerations.

To understand the perception of a digital team, use the following questions.

  • Who oversees digital?
  • Does the digital team have the authority to say no to digital projects?
  • Who initiates new digital projects?
  • How senior are digital staff within the organisational hierarchy?
  • Do you consider your digital team as experts in their field?
  • Does your digital team understand broader business goals or are they just a technical resource?

If the digital team does not own digital the digital direction will be erratic and their will be a lack of consistency in approach. This is not a healthy place to be.

Do they provide adequate training and support for their digital team?

The digital space is evolving at a rapid rate. If digital workers are to stay up-to-date they need time to experiment and opportunities to learn. They need the right environment and equipment. They need a management team that understands. If the emphasis is always on productivity their skill set will atrophy.

Unfortunately many organisations fail to invest in their digital teams. Before long those teams are only able to maintain the status quo, rather than move the organisation forward. This leads to the organisation falling behind the competition.

If you are to prevent this problem you must first highlight it. You can do this with the following questions.

  • Are digital staff assigned a training budget?
  • Do your digital staff have time to experiment and learn?
  • Do your digital staff have their own dedicated workspace?
  • Are digital staff equipped to do their job or are they expected to work with the same equipment as other staff?
  • Does the digital staff have management control over their server environment?
  • Are their limitations placed on their access to the web by IT services?

A failure to invest in their digital team is a sign that the organisation is not committed to digital. A company cannot expect a return from digital without investing in it.

Are they actively encouraging digital adoption within the organisation?

For an organisation to be digitally healthy you cannot lock digital away in a single business silo, even if that is the digital team. A digital company is one that puts digital at the heart of everything they do. Digital is ubiquitous across the entire organisation.

To get to that point the organisation needs to instigate an ongoing programme of digital education. The aim of this is to encourage digital adoption in every part of the business. This programme of education should be one of the primary responsibilities of the digital team.

To establish the extent of digital adoption ask these questions to a broad cross section of the organisation.

  • How often do you use tools such as social media, the intranet, website and mass email as part of your job?
  • Have you received training in the use of digital beyond the content management system?
  • Are you subscribed to receive any updates about what the organisation is doing with digital? Do such updates exist?
  • Do you often speak with the digital team?
  • Do you read any technology or digital content online?

A lack of positive answers to these questions is a sign that digital has become siloed within a single part of the business. This will limit the value the organisation can extract from digital.

Is there a culture of continual iteration?

One of the biggest dangers within organisations is the perception that digital is a series of finite projects. This often consists of a website redesign every few years. Between these redesigns only minimal maintenance happens.

Organisations need to always be investing in digital. They need to evolve their offering through a process of testing and iteration.

To find out if an organisation has an iterative mindset towards digital I recommend asking these questions.

  • Is your website often updated and tested or is it redesigned every few years?
  • Is your digital team spending most of their time on maintenance or do they have time to develop the digital tools further?
  • Does your digital team work using some form of agile?
  • Does your digital team carry out split testing and usability testing on a regular basis?
  • Are you monitoring analytics and looking for ways to improve them?

A culture of continuous iteration ensures that your digital tools operate at peak efficiency. Digital tools that are only redesigned every few years are ineffective much of the time.

How customer focused are they?

Digital has had a significant impact on customer behaviour. Thanks to mobile they have come to expect 24/7 service. Social media has given them a far greater voice. It has increased the importance of peer-to-peer recommendations. Finally the web has made it possible to compare offerings between competitors.

All this has made customer service more important than ever. Unfortunately many organisations shape their digital tools around internal processes rather than customer needs.

A lot of organisations pay lip service to user centric design. But many lack commitment. Use these questions to identify how healthy the organisation is in this area.

  • Have you mapped the customer journey?
  • Do you carry out regular usability testing?
  • Who manages the customer experience?
  • Who answers customer questions that come via social media?
  • How do you ensure a consistent customer experience across all touch points?
  • Do you have a database of answers to common questions?
  • Is there a style guide that defines the tone of voice you use with customers?
  • Do you have a customer relationship management system?

An organisation not focusing on customer service will find itself at a significant disadvantage. It is vital to understand how user centric and organisations culture is.

What is the digital landscape like in the sector?

In certain sectors an organisation can survive despite being digitally unhealthy. Unfortunately fewer sectors find themselves in this position as digital disrupts sector after sector.

Many companies have closed their doors in the face of digital disruption to their sector. Blockbusters, HMV, Tower records, Kodak, Woolworths, Borders, Circuit City, Comp USA, Polaroid. The list goes on.

It is important to consider a companies digital health within the context of its sector. That is why you should always ask the following questions.

  • What are the competition doing with digital?
  • Are their new players in the sector who make better use of digital?
  • Has digital made possible new products or services?
  • Has digital undermined any existing offerings?
  • Has digital changed customer behaviour or expectations?

If digital is having a significant impact on a sector it makes the argument for change much easier. This is particularly true for more well established players. If you are seeing disruption in a sector it is a strong argument that ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option.

But even sectors that are yet to experience the impact of digital are ripe for change. Digital often offers untapped potential that is particularly appealing to ambitious younger companies.

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Why do a digital health check?

Will carrying out a digital health check change anything? No. What it will do is prove to management that there is a need to change.

Like people, organisations fall into patterns of behaviour that are hard to change. Unfortunately these patterns no longer yield the same results because the landscape is different. Business is usual is no longer an option in the digital age and a health check will highlight why this is the case.