Can think tanks move from ‘digital by design’ to ‘digital by default’?

Below is the transcript of the talk I gave at the Social Market Foundation / Overseas Development Institute event on the future of think tank communications, which took place on 26 April 2013 at the ODI offices in London. Lots of the ideas are taken from a series of blogs I wrote on digital strategy for On Think Tanks a couple of years ago, but the ideas have been developed a little – and made easier to digest in talk form! The Prezi that accompanies the talk is also available online.

For the past fifteen years, think tanks have reaped the benefits of the Internet.

The Internet has made it easier for our messages to be heard, and found.

Instead of working through broadcasters, publishers or libraries, we have been able to go it alone. We can be the producers, the broadcasters, the publishers and the libraries – just by creating websites and sending email shots out.

To take advantage of our newfound abilities, we have bolted on digital outputs or methods to our existing ways of working.

  • We’ve published the print outputs we already produced online;
  • We’ve streamed the events we already held to an online audience;
  • We’ve pitched the same articles to new online media;
  • We’ve hired website officers to work alongside our existing communications staff.

To the extent that think tanks are digital organisations, it is by our design. Our core processes, systems and people haven’t changed much.

I’m not sure the ‘bolt-on’ approach will work for the future.

Sure, we can be the producer, the broadcaster, the publisher and the library – but without changing the product we’re offering, will anyone be interested?

I don’t think so. I think that think tanks preparing themselves for the future should be asking is

Can we move from being digital by design to digital by default?

What does that mean?

Well, for many years, The Guardian newspaper was digital by design. It had a team of people uploading the articles they wrote for the paper to the web – I was one of them for a while. It was a strategy that worked well at getting readers.

However, it was a poor business model. It wasn’t quite a traditional newspaper, nor was it as dynamic and low-cost as the Huffington Post.

Now the Guardian is digital by default.

  • Every journalist has to produce for their digital channels – digital savvy is a core competency;
  • The deadlines they work to are not based on the paper version, but on a constant production cycle for the website, the phone app, the Facebook news feed.
  • In fact, they are ‘seriously discussing’ the end to the print edition.

In these changes they hope to sow the seeds of their survival. It is a subject I’m sure John will develop further when talking about the Economist.

So, what of think tanks? Well, Francis Maude has said that ‘digital is not a channel, it is the delivery choice of a generation’.  His unit is overseeing a ‘digital by default’ strategy for the government.

Like The Guardian, we think tanks need to change our core product to reach this generation. We need to deliver our messages to them, whether they are on Facebook, email, their iPad, a mobile device or anywhere else for that matter.

Like The Guardian, this will require changes in our processes, our systems and our people.  Changes that will move us from being digital by design to digital by default.

Today I will focus on how ODI’s communications team is aiming to make that change.

Our strategy has four pillars. I call them:

  1. Cradle to grey
  2. Being there
  3. Reusing the wheel
  4. Revolutionary evolution

The first of these four pillars aims to make online networking and communication activities central to the entire research process.

I call it ‘cradle to grey’ because it targets the fostering, maturing and ageing of research ideas and projects.

At each stage, researchers can be empowered by digital tools and products to make their messages stronger, their reach greater, their influence longer lasting.

First comes the cradle. This is the time in which research ideas are being fostered.

As with our babies, research ideas in their infancy benefit from interactions with others.  So I encourage researchers to network.

They can employ systems like LinkedIn or Twitter to build a community of people interested in their research. These people deliver creative ideas, ardent criticisms and further connections to more interesting people.

The actual process of researching can be digital too. Researchers can use wikis to work collaboratively; or they can build resource libraries through tools like Mendeley.

By opening up the research process, they develop a stronger research product. But not only that. They also have a ready-made set of champions who will communicate their research in the future.

Obviously, using these tools requires new skills and competencies from our people, from our researchers. The communications team can provide support to skill our researchers in Twitter and other tools – and our excellent media man, Jonathan, does this ably.

But more drastic action might be needed to truly embed digital working. For example, should think tanks be hiring researchers based on their digital profile and expertise?

After the cradle comes maturity. This is the time when research is notionally complete. Traditionally, this is the point at which a report would be released.

Now, a researcher can encourage a flourishing of life. They can publish their work in one of many formats – a podcast, a video, a blog, or an infographic.

Even for a report, the end point should no longer be just a PDF file. ODI will soon be implementing new production systems and processes that can output text in whichever format is most appropriate for the reader – be that a webpage, an ebook, a PDF or something else entirely.

Again, there is a learning curve for our people to get used to these tools. With so many potential formats to choose from, choosing the right one and messaging it appropriately is essential.

When we need to reach the media, we need Jonathan on board to hone the message. But sometimes we are aiming to influence academics, in which case we might concentrate on making our data accessible for them to use.

Finally, after maturity, comes the grey. This is the lifespan of the research once it’s published, as it starts to age.

Research on the Internet is immortal. It never goes to the grave. It just gets elderly, a little grey around the edges.

But old does not mean useless.

Research findings can be posted to Wikipedia, enshrining them in the greatest knowledge store of the modern age. ODI does this for all our Briefing Papers, and encourages researchers to include updating Wikipedia as part of the deliverables of their research projects.

Research papers and associated data can be released under a creative commons licence, encouraging reuse of it by others in their work. I’m hoping that ODI implements a data transparency policy later this year, and uses creative commons as our standard licence too.

So while research may grow old, if research projects are planned with long-term visibility in mind, the work they produce can be seeing impact for many years to come. There should be no dusty bookshelves in the digital world.

The second pillar of our strategy is called ‘being there’.

Think tanks sell ideas. Ideas based on research. Ideas that aim to change the world.

But you can’t sell ideas in the same way as you would a car, or an iPhone. Apple and Ford sell their products to make money, but our ideas are free. So they will always be able to use their income to shout louder and harder.

Which means think tanks have to be clever, if their ideas are going to be heard.

Our response to this challenge is to return to first principles of communications. You wouldn’t create a radio station to reach the listeners of the BBC, so why did we post every blog we wrote to our own website?

We shouldn’t. Instead we follow an approach we call ‘being there. We don’t expect people to come to content on our platforms, instead we push information to them, through the online channels they already use.

How does this work in practice?

  • We try to post information to the most appropriate site. It could be The Guardian, or even the site of a competitor.
  • We’ve used Twitter and Facebook from day one, and it is a core part of our media function to reach audiences through these networks.
  • We aim to make everything available by email – it is the one tool everyone will check every day.

To make ‘being there’ work, it is important that you have someone on board who can be a bridge between the academic content researchers produce and the newsier feel of many of the channels used. Step in Jonathan, again!

But you also need to encourage researchers themselves to think through and use their contacts and connections. They live in their sector – and should know which channels their peers read or visit most.

Finally, you need to think about the processes and systems that facilitate being there. We only post a blog on the ODI site when we can’t find a suitable external alternative – we’ve built that step into the blog writing process. And the ODI site is built from the ground up to not care whether content it lists is held on the ODI site or elsewhere.

A third pillar is called ‘Reusing the wheel’

As a not for profit organisation, every penny we spend must be accounted for.

But many online initiatives are expensive. Organisations spend tens of thousands of pounds building websites for new projects and developing new systems for niche interests (just within the international development arena, I know of at least two expensively developed bespoke professional networks acting as a poor man’s LinkedIn. Needless to say, LinkedIn does the job better and is used more as a result – these were poor investments).

For me, there was no way we would get our strategy taken up internally if it cost too much. So I made it a point of principle that we wouldn’t spend money on something we could get for free. We wouldn’t reinvent the wheel; we would reuse what we had, wherever we could:

For example:

  • Commercial companies release free tools for consumers all the time. So why pay a website developer to recreate the functionality you can get from or Google Sites. Our most successful project sites, Climate Funds Update and are both are built on these free tools.
  • Private individuals release vast quantities of content under Creative Commons Licenses. So why pay for photo libraries when you can use Flickr or Wikimedia? Almost all images on the ODI website come from talented amateurs or other organisations who’ve posted them on Flickr.
  • Our intranet already works on Microsoft Sharepoint. So why pay tens of thousands for a new digital production system to hold details of our publication and events? No, not necessary.

This approach made it possible to deliver the whole strategy on less than £5,000 over the first two years, which was mainly spent on temps, and subscriptions to a few cheap online tools.

But reusing the wheel isn’t just about using others’ work – it is about putting in too. So when we learn something, or have to build something new because it doesn’t exist out there, we should also release it for others. If that isn’t possible, we should at the very least document what we’re doing for others to build on.

The final pillar is about the way change happens – in ODI it has to be revolutionary evolution

Why revolution? Well, I’ve been talking about wholesale changes to the processes, the systems and the people of an organisation. That is massive business change, and ODI could be transformed as a result. That can be pretty revolutionary.

But revolution is scary. So while we are aiming for revolutionary change, we deliver it peace meal. In an evolutionary manner.

We ask ourselves, what should success look like in a few years’ time? If it doesn’t feel like revolutionary change, we need to set a more ambitious course.

But then we also ask ourselves, what does success look like next week, month or year? If it doesn’t feel achievable we need to be more pragmatic.

To make change happen we do three things:

We employ arguments and evidence to convince people change is in their interest
I’ve tried to be a voice within ODI for change. I’ve built up the arguments about why change is necessary – often couched in fairly academic language to help establish my credibility with the research audience.

Every part of this digital strategy is documented, and I present and use it regularly in internal discussions.

We’ve also built a strong monitoring and evaluation dashboard to feed back to researchers where their work has been successful and where it hasn’t.

By moving past just reporting downloads to telling a story about how wider digital engagement builds reach and usage of work, we highlight the incentives for them in participating in the change we propose.

We sometimes also build a little professional jealousy to get people on board.

We aim for a net gain for staff, not just the organisation, when we introduce new processes

When I’m setting out to change a process to deliver digital gains, I start by understanding current ways of working. Change can, and should, save them time and effort for staff.

This was how ODI’s first digital production system was created: over the course of three years we replaced different stores of content people had created themselves with a central one that was easier to manage.

When we were finished, we had a digital by default process that was easier for staff to use. A process that involved where everyone in ODI can add details of their events, publications or projects and have the website, intranet, newsfeeds and social media channels updated automatically.

We introduce new systems that build on what we have and what is available

As I outlined when I discussed ‘reusing the wheel’, there are lots of systems out there that can be used already, with minimal cost and effort.  A cheap or free system is less likely to encounter resistance from those who think funds could be spent better.

Better still is to use a system that you already have, as people should be used to those.

Our monitoring and evaluation dashboard is a good example: it is built on Qlikview, which our finance team had already purchased for their financial monitoring. And we’re in the midst of moving our contacts management system across to our finance system too.

I think the four pillars I have outlined – cradle to grey, being there, reusing the wheel, and revolutionary evolution – can be catalysts for think tanks that aim to become digital by default. I certainly think it is starting to make the change for ODI.

But I’d be interested to hear what you have to think – I’m looking forward to the discussion!

I am Digital Manager at UNISON. My core area of interest is in digital tools and content strategy. As Digital Manager at the Overseas Development Institute, I developed a digital strategy awarded Online Strategy of the Year at the Digital Communications Awards 2012. I have written extensively on digital strategy and monitoring and evaluation, primarily on how they can support research communications with impact. I am also a founder of WonkComms, a popular community of practice for think tank communications staff. In this capacity, I am a member of the blog editorial board, commissioning and editing blogs and regularly formulate, speak at and chair events held at various UK think tank HQs in London and more widely.

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3 comments on “Can think tanks move from ‘digital by design’ to ‘digital by default’?
  1. […] Nick Scott, Digital Manager, ODI, asks whether think tanks can move from being ‘digital by design’ to ‘digital by default’?  The full transcript of his talk is available on the WonkComms blog. […]

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