Meet Lara, our new Chief Digital Officer, championing Scouts as a digital first movement
Scouts’ new Chief Digital Officer talks about what it’s like to be a leader in tech and shares her vision for our digital future.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’ve worked in digital for more than 25 years at digital agencies, commercial organisations and in the charity sector for the last 10 years, firstly at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and Age UK most recently. At both non-profits, I ran the digital team, redesigned and redeveloped their website, and worked on improving their digital content.
At RHS, we started up weekly podcasts (now listened to by millions of people!) and we also began a series of how-to gardening videos. At Age UK, we developed innovative tools as well as looking at digital skills for older people, volunteers and the people on the front line who work with older people. I’m really proud that our digital work there won us eight awards, including Third Sector Digital Charity of the year.
A common thread throughout my career has been working on products that’ve been innovative, aiming to make the most out of digital to make our lives better.
What influenced you to get into digital?
My career started off when the word ‘digital’ wasn’t even used and before the web! I fell into it by accident when I started working for a publishing company who were really innovative with digital tools and content. We digitised the entire printed works of English poetry onto CD-ROM. In my last job we introduced AI through chatbots and were experimenting with voice technology. What I’m really interested in is how we can use technology to help us better achieve what we are here to do – I’m not interested in technology for technology’s sake; it’s the outcome you’re working towards that matters.
How is technology affecting non-profit organisations like Scouts?
It’s affecting us the same as any organisation. I go to conferences with big commercial organisations and they’re struggling with the same stuff that we’re struggling with. They’ve got big, legacy tech systems that don’t necessarily work brilliantly or work with other things. They’ve got the issues around trying to figure out what you want from technology, where digital as an expertise sits, and how you involve locally based people in a centrally driven organisation. There isn’t really a difference – with a charity of course you don’t have much money but you can often do things in a more flexible, agile way.
What’s your main focus at Scouts in the year ahead?
There are four key areas that we’re focusing on in the next year.
1. Digital culture and skills for staff and volunteers
We’re looking at what digital skills we need to become a truly digital first organisation. So, how do we enable every person in the movement to make the most of digital tools or systems?
To do this, we’ve created our digital principles (listed below), which we aim to drive everything we do. We’re driven by data and insight so that we make informed decisions based on data not just opinions. We’re user-focused; our volunteers, parents and young people are at the core of everything we do; so we’re co-designing, testing and improving digital tools with the people who are going to use them.
2. Better tools and systems for our members
We’re looking at how we can improve our tools and systems to help with the day to day experience of Scouts. For example, hopefully the programme planning tool is already enabling leaders to put together a programme easier with quality content, saving them time when they’re trying to plan their weekly session. Everything is around making tools that help members do their role better.
3. Our website
We’re constantly improving our website to attract new volunteers and make it easier for people to come in, to see what we might ask them to do, to sign up and to follow through to a local group where they might start volunteering.
We’re also moving the content over from member’s resources so people don’t have to go to multiple resources to find the answers – another really big focus for us this year.
4. Our internal systems
We’re putting in a new case management system to enable the safeguarding team to track all of the cases they’re working on and keep better records. We’re also looking at our info security and cyber security, making sure we aren’t open to attack.
Why is it important that we constantly evolve digitally?
Because everyone else is. If we don’t keep ourselves up to date, we’re in danger of getting left behind. That’s not just for volunteers or staff, but very much keeping in mind the fact that young people are complete digital natives. They don’t see ‘being digital’ as distinct from the rest of their life. Whether we love it or hate it, it’s woven into the lives of young people, from quite a young age. In fact, one in four children under the age of six has a smartphone.
It’s absolutely essential that we reflect that, if young people out there are using stuff digitally we need to be on top of it, not just from the point of view of online safety but also so we present our stuff in the same way to them because that’s how they use information and interact with their own friends.
I think it’s really dangerous for an organisation to say ‘we’ve done our website so we can sit back for a few years’ – because if you sit back, after a few years you’ll be massively behind again. So we have this idea of continuous improvement – not just for our website, but for all of our digital tools.
How will you involve volunteers in digital transformations?
Volunteers will be involved in our transformation in many ways. Of course, many have already been involved as they gave feedback on our Beta website, which we continue to use as we plan further development. We also have a community of interest, for those who might work in the digital space and are interested in getting more involved, for instance, in testing early releases. We have three volunteers on our Digital Programme Board too, led by Andrew Sutherland. Being ‘user-led’ is at heart of our digital work, so everything we do will involve volunteers, helping us learn what the issues are, shaping the design of our products and services, and testing things as we roll them out.
What does the digital future of Scouts look like?
Scouts should be a digital-first organisation, so that means that we’d always do things digitally in the first place. Where we get young people or parents joining up on behalf of their children, most of those I’d expect to start their journey online. It’s not about digital replacing everything; it’s about digital enabling what we do – so for instance it can save people time on things like planning their programme or joining up as a volunteer. This means they have more time to do the face to face things in local groups, doing the stuff that they’ve been doing for 100 years – that shouldn’t change. All the digital stuff enables our work.
People have been talking about AR, VR and AI at conferences for years but I think they’re way off for us. We’ve got to get the basics right first, particularly because what we do is about getting young people outdoors. That for me is not going to be replaced by techy stuff. Part of what we want to do, and are already doing, with our Digital Citizenship and Digital Maker Badges, is to equip young people so they understand and act safely in the digital world. We know that social media can be a dangerous place for young people, so that’s really important for us to focus on. Honestly, I can’t see a time when we would be spending money developing a VR experience when actually we can take young people out into a field with a tent and let them have a real experience.
What are the steps we need to take to establish a digital first movement?
We need to embed the digital principles. If we can get to a stage where our staff and volunteers all use those principles that would be amazing.
In the next two years it’s about getting our basic systems sorted so everyone can get the information they need in a really easy fashion. Potentially we might not be needing the phone lines as much. People can come on to the website, and have their queries answered though an online chat. We want to embed the programme planning tool so people are using and sharing the content. We need to look at our membership system and ensure we have a modern system that’s fit for purpose, supports the volunteer journey but without it being difficult, clunky or confusing to use.
Being digital first is about having systems and tools which are so easy to use you don’t notice they’re there. It should just be easy; it shouldn’t go wrong.
Scouts is a values-driven movement, how will they be considered for any digital transformations?
Our values drive everything we do, in the same way as all of our work. In particular our value of co-operation underlines all our digital work. Our digital tools are often designed to help people collaborate and co-operate more easily. Any digital project will always be a co-operative development between parents, young people, volunteers and our programme team who are building the tool.
What motto do you live and work by?
Digital is a state of mind, that changes the way we think, work and act. It’s not just about a piece of tech, a cool whizzy thing on your computer or your phone, it’s about doing things in a different way.
Our Digital Principles
1. We put users at the heart of everything we do
2. We are bold and open to change
3. We create digital first, responsive and accessible services
4. We use data and insight to drive our decisions
5. We measure, test and learn
6. We engage, collaborate and partner
7. We provide safe and secure services
8. Our systems are flexible, sustainable and interoperable