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Amnesty International's digital transformation avoids the nuclear button

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman September 14, 2014
Owen Pringle, former director of digital communications at human rights charity Amnesty International, has some advice on what it takes for an organisation to become truly digital.

[sws_grey_box box_size="690"]SUMMARY -Owen Pringle, former director of digital communications at human rights charity Amnesty International, has some advice on what it takes for an organisation to become truly digital. [/sws_grey_box]

You need to be ready to "press the nuclear button' when you're organization is on the brink of digital transformation.

That's the stark advice from Owen Pringle, former director of digital communications at human rights charity Amnesty International, who goes on to warm that some collateral damage may be inevitable.

In Amnesty’s case, the nuclear option meant dismantling the digital communications department over which Pringle presided, in order to move to a new approach where everyone at Amnesty uses digital as part of their day-to-day work.

In other words, over the course of a two-year digital transformation project, Pringle made himself redundant.

Given that outcome, he's pretty upbeat when he observes:

What we achieved was a long-term understanding at Amnesty that digital isn’t something that should be limited to a silod function within the organisation. It’s something that needs to be owned by everyone, from the management team down.

That rule applies to other organisations too: Pringle’s philosophy is that digital transformation needs to be about fostering a culture of “digital ownership” across all business units - but he acknowledges that it can be a tough transition to make.

With that in mind, the former-journalist-turned-digital-expert, who has also worked at ITN, BSkyB and the Southbank Center, has recently set up his own digital consultancy, Therein, with the aim of helping others navigate these choppy waters.

Resistance to change, he says, can be a funny thing, coming from areas of an organisation where you don’t expect to find it. Sometimes, it comes from people who are reticent to learn new skills or are overly attached to their existing job descriptions.

At Amnesty, there was some concern that, by getting rid of the digital department, the charity as a whole was disinvesting in digital - although that couldn’t have been further from the truth, he insists:

I had to go to great lengths to explain that this was a move that would demand greater investment, in fact - but it was also one that made sense, because there are some aspects of digital communications that are best left to subject-matter experts.

A good example are the researchers that Amnesty posts to conflict hotspots such as Gaza and Syria:

We don’t want people on the ground in areas like that to be deferring to a London-based digital department just to get their findings out there and in front of the right audiences. That’s crazy.

Avoiding the red button 

But pressing the nuclear button isn’t always necessary, he concedes. Sometimes, there are less scary routes to take on the digital transformation journey.

Overall, Pringle argues, most organisations could be doing more to establish digital governance models, information architecture guidelines and rules of engagement for social networking sites.

The danger, he says, is that they stop once they’ve got those pieces in place. In fact, digital transformation is an ongoing process which means that once an organization has its internal rules established, then it needs to think externally:

  • What is the customer experience of our digital communications - are we giving them what they need?
  • How well do we engage with these audiences on an ongoing basis?
  • What role could digital play in the innovation of new products and services for them?

The IT function has a significant role, says Pringle:

It’s about the ‘demystification of digital’, through the provision of a capability layer and the development of the skills employees need to use those capabilities with confidence.

That may prove to be an easier task that it seems at first glance, he adds:

We should be celebrating and exploiting the fact that people know this stuff already. They’re all at home using Facebook and Twitter and so on. They just don’t always see how it fits into a workplace environment. They pass through the company’s doors at 9am each day and suddenly disown it - so they need to be given the confidence to transfer these skills into their working lives.

Pringle’s a strong believer in the idea proposed by US academic and management expert Peter Senge that today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.

Those organisations that cling to the notion that their digital expertise should be embedded in a specialist team will, over time, run into problems, he warns. But he concludes: 

In a few years’ time, all successful organisations and all successful employees will use digital without thinking about it. They’ll be able to say ‘This is just what we do.

After all, we all use electricity at work every day, but most organisations don’t have a head of electricity or an electricity department. It’s just a tool for getting work done.


Owen Pringle will be speaking at IP EXPO Europe on Thursday 9 October, 13:05-13:30, giving a presentation entitled: 'Digital Transformation - What is it? And how to do it.'

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