Secondment Diaries: How to change strategy and team culture through IT

This is the second in our series of secondment diaries, following the experience of Antonia Panayotova, a civil servant currently (remotely) seconded for six months to a small international NGO, Child Rights International Network (CRIN), through WIG’s Charity Next scheme. Antonia joined CRIN in April from the government’s digital, data and technology profession to be their Data & Technology Manager. Here she talks about a project she has now completed at CRIN.

How to change strategy and team culture through IT

  • The task: Review CRIN’s information technology (IT) and make recommendations for improvements
  • The approach: My interpretation of enterprise architecture
  • The result: Forward-looking IT solutions, resolved blockers, started developing criteria for all partners based on CRIN values, improved team communication, improved (and still improving) digital skills in the team and my own IT understanding.

My task was vague, and could therefore be very broad or very focused. I chose to make it broad, as a strategic big picture approach has always brought me better results. I had worked with some great enterprise architects in the UK Government whom I thought I could use as an example. In a big organisation, or in my experience of a government department, the enterprise architects take this strategic approach to IT and make sure complex solutions, multiple processes and strategies are all aligned to each other. Reflecting on their approaches, I thought some would also make a lot of sense even in a small third sector organisation such as CRIN. They help you move past simply reacting to IT issues and plan for what you need today AND five years from now. So, I took what I knew from brilliant former mentors and adapted it to assess CRIN’s IT. The results were good, but the process was even better. It made us ask difficult questions about our goals, values, team culture, etc. which we can then reflect in our wider work and not just our IT. So let me share a few questions you can ask yourself and your team if you wish to try this approach (for IT or to adapt to any process/service, really):

  1. Who is the organisation?

This is key. Nowadays almost all people have their own IT preferences - a favourite operating system, browser, communication platform or email provider. These have variations in functionality that define our preferences. Which one is chosen in an organisational context should not be based on the preferences of one or two individuals. It should be based on the needs of the organisation and the user needs of its employees. What are the organisation’s long term plans, say, in the next five years? How about the next year? What is the purpose of the organisation? What is the team culture like? What are the things the team finds important as a group? How do people in the team work with each other? These are some of the questions you can start with to identify who your organisation is and what matters to it.

  1. What does ‘the who’ tell you about your criteria for partners?

Let’s look at some of the starting questions mentioned. At CRIN the purpose is fighting for the rights of children around the world. This automatically makes our IT partners’ human rights record placed highly among our criteria for evaluation. One of the rights we fight to uphold is that of a safe environment, which in turn puts the environmental impact of our partners quite high up on the list too. And then you can break that down further - what do you mean by environmental impact? Are we looking for partners who use carbon offsetting, or ones who may not yet be carbon neutral but try to minimise emissions? There are values our organisation and team try to uphold and these should be reflected in who we work with, even when choosing IT.

  1. What does ‘the who’ tell you about your criteria for IT functionality?

The same questions from above can tell you about some of the functional needs the organisation has for IT. In the UK Government there is a whole discipline of user research, and specific members of teams who look into user needs for both internal staff and external citizen users. It has achieved great things, for example making multiple digital tools for citizens accessible for people hard of seeing or hearing, people with anxiety or those on the autistic spectrum. While you may not have a big team or people devoted solely to user research, asking your team a few questions about their digital skills, ways of working, daily activities and communication problems can go a long way. It can help you identify functional needs in your organisations and develop criteria based on them. To use CRIN as an example again, people in our team work from various corners of the world and remotely at all times - not just during COVID. This means some may have difficulties with internet access specific to their region or wish to operate in a different language. CRIN’s IT therefore needs to support remote working, worldwide and at different internet speeds. This then translates into functional criteria in our assessment.

  1. What resources do you have? Where are you willing to compromise?

Finally the good old resources. I’ve worked in places where I was part of a 2000 people IT team and the opposite extreme now, where I am mostly in a team of my own. This should decide how much and what you are willing to compromise on. In a big team, you can build your own specific solution and have in-house support for it. Yet, you still need to prioritise and assess if this is the best way your team can use their time or whether a compromise with one of the market options may be better. I have seen big teams custom-build file storage solutions for their organisation before. And although they had the team to support it, one of the many ready-made solutions available could have saved them a lot of time and effort they could have focused on something which had no good substitute in the digital market.

This is even more important in a small team where choosing from what is available is more often than not the only option. You can still build things, but they take time and may require support after. In my case, I can build custom solutions while with CRIN, but would these be setting them up for expensive future support or issues with use after I move on to a new role? I want to empower them with IT solutions that require minimum support in the future. Then again, just using solutions that do not actually meet your needs or do not work for your whole team is also not an option. Having worked with big and small teams with different skills and resources has shown me how important having these conversations early on is. What is possible with your resources and where you can compromise is key!

There are tough questions when making decisions that affect the whole organisation, and IT is no exception. While many of the questions above may not have a straightforward answer, they create conversations that are worth having. They will help you identify the IT needs, capabilities and skills in your team and then plan what to do for the digital needs of your future. In my case, we found ways to implement our strategic goals more easily by improving collaboration and communication with new tools, learning new digital skills or dealing with long-standing data issues. Plus, this has really helped me improve my knowledge of IT needs in different contexts and develop as a professional. It has been a great exercise for personal and professional development for me and my team. Hopefully that will be enough to convince you to try this approach yourself!