Skills as a barrier to digital progress and moving membership to the next level

Author: Mags Rivett, Head of Digital & Marketing at Purple Vision 

I read with interest  a headline in December – ‘skills shortage the biggest barrier to digital progress overtaking legacy systems’ – it’s given me cause to ponder why this is such a challenge.

As a consultancy service that supports non-profits with technology choices (as well as digital and data things), Purple Vision gets to see a lot of legacy systems. Sometimes this is a case of things just moving on and not quite keeping up. At other times, you can’t help but wonder if Aunty Maude left you the legacy as a bit of a joke. In all cases, there’s always a way forward to be found and our approach is to try and build systems that have some degree of future proofing.

Pace of change, or change of pace?

This task of future proofing is in itself not always easy.  It’s estimated that the ‘trend time’ for digital marketing approaches now is about 6 weeks. So every 6 weeks your thinking needs to shift.

Of course, for CRM and other systems, the time frame may not be quite the same as it takes to use a box of tea bags, but there are regular shifts and updates to capabilities still.  This is all happening now, and the longer we think about it, the further behind we get.  Our ability to analyse, assess risks and opportunities here is critical.  Not the digital skills that the study refers to, but vital skills nonetheless.

The human condition intervenes with this – we know what we know and quickly get comfortable with what we know.  In a world of constant change, and in a world where tech decision making is vastly different, how do you keep up with everything?  Where do you pitch your knowledge and experience – where’s your comfort zone.  How do you identify what is relevant to you and your members?

And for just one minute, let’s dwell on the fact we still don’t have these answers – or aren’t used to the idea of this.  The internet – this harbinger of change and disruption, this ‘digital’ thing – is 26 years old now.  Plenty of time in which to get used to the idea, and adjust.  Or, to be provocative, just enough time for those who were at the start of their career when it was ‘new-fangled’ and uncertain to be in the key decision making positions now?

Shift in thinking

We’ve been working with an organisation who are making a strategic investment in technology to support their 5 year plans and visions – they’re ditching the ‘legacy systems’, a big tick against the washing list of things that hold organisations back from digital development.

At the heart of this is a new CRM – finally, the elusive single member or stakeholder view is in sight.  Of course with this change comes the need to ensure that all their processes will still work. We’ve been through a robust process of reviewing and analysing to ensure systems meet specific functional requirements.  All good.

But that’s only half the story.  There was talk of a requirements gathering exercise for some other tools – digital tools – that will help fit the rest of the organisation vision.   Which rather begs the question, how can you gather requirements for tools which don’t exist yet or don’t know you need yet? 

There’s a clear direction of travel for digital tools towards ‘marketing clouds’, which are transformative tools both culturally and strategically, and vastly improve member experience and service.

But much of this cloud approach is based on constant innovation, not individual deliberately considered decisions and analysis. If you replace like with like rather than with tools that continually innovate, you’re sabotaging your potential for success.

In short, we cannot put our digital decisions into such neat frameworks and boxes as we have always done.  And so we need to innovate our skills to handle this new approach.

Yes, there is still a clear need for rigid and robust decision making.  Yes, there is a need to be prudent in making investments.  But more and more, there is a critical need to be agile in thinking, quickly grasp concepts and understand that ‘direction of travel’ is more important than ‘currently ticks the box’.  You can identify the known unknowns but must also be able to embrace the unknown unknowns.

We need to have the skills and competencies to deal with this within our organisations.  I don’t mean to be disingenuous in my earlier comment about career trajectories and digital decision making.  Many of the most pragmatic decisions about digital come from those with wisdom of experience behind them, from those who have kept on top of trends and can see the line through the middle of the ups and downs of what is the equivalent of a decision-making bell curve.

But behind these pragmatists and the odd visionary are those who have grown up with digital as normal.  Who don’t see it as a ‘separate thing’ – who see it as just another tool, and who have the skills and yes, the cliché, digital DNA – to innately understand how it fits together.

An ideal world will bring the people together.

The way forward

I’ve deliberately tried to avoid using our trusted phrase ‘people, process, technology’ but I think it is too apposite to leave out. It’s something of a mantra of ours, but it’s rooted in some plain truths.

You can have great processes and awesome technology, but it’s the people that drive the action.  If your process is right, and your technology not languishing somewhere south of the basement in a static server, your people will naturally perform better.

If your team doesn’t buy in to the process, or understand what is going on in the wider world outside – not just the trends, but the tools and thinking that’s driving them, and how they can apply to your organisation – there will be no moving forward.  This is a point that goes beyond digital transformation of course.

But the heart of it really is that people have to be motivated enough, and care enough to take this river of news, this daily stream of updates, and paddle.  We need people who have the vision to disrupt a comfortable cycle of working to try something new, to do something differently, and who have the confidence – and support from management – to take some risks.  Even to fail.  People who have the focus to strive, learn and develop.

So, really we should update our recipe for success – people, process, technology & passion.

Digital is disruptive – so disrupt the way you recruit to match

You’ll note that at no point have we mentioned the background of people here, or in fact specific skills.  But we have talked about key qualities, attitude and mind-set.

To meet the future we face, your team doesn’t have to be experts in the regulatory and CPD frameworks of your membership organisation.  They don’t have to be subject matter experts.  They might never have come across the subject your membership body represents. They do have to know about concepts, tools and techniques to apply in a range of contexts. Much of this will be digital. But not all.

Hiring outside of your usual expectations of knowledge may mean you have to change your on-boarding programme and invest in bringing new colleagues up to speed with your members’ world-view. But balance that against the skills and learning that will be bought into your organisation, and you might find it’s worth the investment in shifted thinking.

Of course, if you are not recruiting and have an able compliment of staff already, there is still the need to adopt – and adapt – to this thinking.  There are innovative ways of doing this through interventions that take teams away from the business as usual approach and drive more integrated digital thinking into bitesize chunks.  It’s not always easy – what change worth making ever is? – but by making teams work together on small digital-based tasks, transformation is possible.

Six things to think about for staffing digital development

  1.  It starts here. Are you up to date with digital developments enough to actively engage candidates and measure competency?
  2. Hire passionate, interested people – you can train skills but you can’t train people to be engaged by what they do.
  3. Help your existing team to stay on top of what’s happening now – something as simple as ensuring there is time for learning from peers and hearing what’s happening in industry (a synergistic plug for MemberWise?)
  4. Ask your members to host staff for a while and show them the issues and challenges they face, so you can find skills to match and learn from their innovations
  5. Be prepared to take some – calculated – risks.
  6. Invest in your existing teams’ expertise – change their digital thinking.



Contact Mags:, Twitter:@purple_vision



Purple Vision is a charity consultancy and a MemberWise Recognised Provider. Our services include digital signposting and integration, independent technology advice, analytics and the use of data to help decision making and of course, fundraising. We work with partner organisations (like Salesforce, Blackbaud and ASI) but are independent – that means we recommend solutions that are right for your organisation. We’re on your side.


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