Three tips for developing a digital strategy

UN agency official: The right plan can help with problems as obscure as swarms of locusts

Paul Whimpenny is Senior Officer for Digital Strategy at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), an agency that leads international efforts to defeat hunger. Its goal is to achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. It has more than 194 member states and works in over 130 countries worldwide.

Our organization, like many others has been both inspired and slightly terrified at the same time by the emergence of new digital markets. From AirBnB to Spotify, we see how whole industries can be changed almost in the blink of an eye, sometimes triggering a rapid decline of more traditional industries.

In this article, I give three simple tips to keep in mind if you are embarking on developing a Digital Strategy for your organization.

Evolution, not revolution

Tip 1: Don’t forget that a Digital Strategy is not a revolution but an evolution of the traditional practice of developing an organizational IT Strategy. It is important not to be blinded by the digital hype, or believe that you need to recruit a brand new team with the word digital-this this or digital-that in the job titles before embarking on a Digital Strategy. Yes, it does need a more business focused approach and less IT-centric than a traditional strategy, and yes you do need to watch out for the next Uber in your industry, but fundamentally a digital strategy is an IT strategy applied to our times.

The opportunities may be greater to influence the direction of your organization, and the threats may be greater too, but the analytical skills you’ve used to develop strategies in the past still apply here. There is also time to grow them because the process of changing from IT to digital will take time.

In setting up the team to work on this, we simply identified three or four employees to work on the area of digital strategy. These were just regular staff, with diverse technical backgrounds, who we thought were flexible and motivated enough to be able to pick up a new role, especially one for which there are no standard training courses. This team was assigned full-time to this task, and that was essential, both to get up the learning curve quickly and to avoid distraction from unavoidable demands for operational support.

In preparing to write our Digital Strategy, we interviewed all the Senior Managers of the organization worldwide, around 40 people. These interviews concentrated on very traditional IT questions: business objectives, business capabilities needed and IT’s potential contribution to providing those capabilities.

This traditional approach was needed because trying to get busy senior managers up to speed on digital trends to the point where they could see the opportunities themselves did not seem feasible.

To get around this block, we distilled the disparate input from their interviews into a group of five themes. That allowed us to explain the Digital Strategy in terms of how we believed these themes could be addressed. We then ran two workshops to get business people to talk about specific themes, both to confirm some of our own conclusions and to give them some sense of ownership for the direction of the Digital Strategy.

Know your business

Tip 2: Get ready to learn your business. OK, you are thinking, “Yeah, I know my business backwards,” but I’ve seen in my team that this knowledge can be very superficial.  Or it might be detailed knowledge about internal mechanisms while in reality the team is not in a position to understand and actively contribute to business direction. Within my organization, the IT division has an intimate knowledge of many specific business processes, usually deriving from the fact that we’ve developed the underpinning information systems.

For example, we have developed several systems to identify the risks of outbreaks of various pests such as swarms of desert locusts that can have a devastating effect on crops. In this situation, information technology is critical in processing and sharing relevant data. Despite this, the IT division has still had a passive secondary role in terms of developing information systems in accordance with business requirements. In this scenario, we get to know the business process but we do not influence it.

More recently we were asked to be involved in a discussion about another pest – the red palm weevil which is a bug that destroys palm trees and has spread to more than 60 countries. Here, we had a chance to answer a different question: how can IT contribute to eradicating the red palm weevil? Here, after learning a good deal about the pest, we proposed a mix of new technologies – remote sensing, drones and IoT (intelligent traps) – in order to be able to map out and monitor areas of palms, identify areas of infestation and respond quickly to eliminate them. Here, the understanding of newer digital technologies combined with a genuine understanding of the business issue made for a powerfully positive mix.

It just needs one or two cases like this for business users to start looking at the IT team in a different light. Needless to say that this in itself is not enough and there has to be the implicit, or ideally explicit, political backing of the management of the organization to make this change.

Keep it practical

Tip 3: It is oh so tempting to try and dazzle people with a 10-year digital masterplan laid out in gory detail in a 200-page coffee table tome. But it is important to keep in mind that your approach to a digital strategy is likely to be different, and perhaps significantly so, three or four years down the road.

This is both because new ideas and opportunities will emerge as part of the learning curve within the organization, and because digital technologies are themselves evolving at a frightening pace. Our organization’s digital strategy is a mere 14 pages – two pages of executive summary, two pages to describe the background and process followed, four pages to describe the output of the detailed interviews with senior managers and the workshops we ran on this subject, six pages to describe the actual strategy and action plan across five key pillars. This was enough for us and gives us a solid blueprint to guide us for the next two to three years.

We were also careful to keep the digital strategy grounded in reality. One of the five themes simply reiterated a move to loud-based services that was already in progress.

A second theme targeting excellence in critical operational processes that have been made severely inefficient due to the need to use overlapping systems provided by different business units. We have already built a prototype of one core process in order to keep the momentum going for this theme and are currently showing this to key stakeholders.

The remaining three themes are much more ambitious, touching the way the organization can use IT to bring much better results in its actual delivery to countries through more innovative products, sustainable solutions, and greater use of partnerships with technology companies. 

So, to summarize, keep in mind that a digital strategy is not something totally new, should not over-aim in terms of duration and is critically dependent on the IT team having a true understanding of the business.

(The views expressed here are those of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

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