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Digital icebergs

Communications teams have frequently taken a lead on digital development, but if true transformation is to happen you need a specialist at board level, argues Digital Content Strategist Sarah Lay. 

You don’t have to be a mariner to have heard the old adage about what you see being only the tip of the iceberg. To know the bit that breaks the surface and becomes visible doesn’t always represent the size of what lies beneath, out of view. That adage stands very well with the state of digital delivery in the public sector in 2017. What we’ve used digital to transform in our organisations is merely the tip of the iceberg, the visible bits.

In recent years it has increasingly been the communications teams who have grappled for or been left holding responsibility for digital. This is often seen as managing a website, an intranet, email marketing, looking after the social media channels. Communications teams have used their skills and resources to maintain or improve the visible bits but often the organisation remains unaware of what lies beneath, or willfully resists diving to depth and really tackling the sort of radical transformations possible with digital.

But before we go any further, let’s just clarify; what *is* digital? Digital has always been, and still is, dangerously close to jargon, or a sexy new label for the same old things we have been doing for a while. Many people use it as a generalisation when really they speak of a contributing specialism or function within it.

Digital is confusing, mainly because we have let it become so. 

When I think of digital as a whole I think of the complete organisation. It’s part of what you do, and should be part of how you do it, and certainly how you tell people about it. Broadly it is everything from the technology that underpins your delivery to the presentation layer that people virtually touch.

And this means that the expertise needed to navigate an organisation is different to traditional disciplines; there are communications knowledge, and IT, and design, and customer service, and project management, strategic thinkers with tactical experience of using and building processes, systems and interfaces that meet both user and business needs. What is needed is both challenge and reassurance for organisations and a sector already facing unprecedented pressure and demand for change.

What is needed is someone and something that stands apart from the hierarchy but is also embedded in the organisation and the customers outside it.

This means communications teams must consider a step back, of becoming a spoke in the digital wheel rather than the hub they have been for so long. This is no failing on their part but rather that time is long overdue for facing the true scale of transformation and tackling the parts of digital below the surface in order to succeed. Communications is part of the digital leader skill set, but it is far from the whole full complement.

For a clear view of the digital iceberg I think it’s time organisations that truly want to be digital – to meet their user needs in this channel and unlock the savings – create digital transformation units, under these experienced digital leaders, answering directly to the Chief Executive and senior politicians.

Make digital not something that is done to services by this stand-alone unit but rather bring in existing expertise from around the organisation, aligned to a skilled and experienced digital lead.

Make true sustainable transformation something you are doing together, empowered to make fundamental change and freed from hierarchical structure.

Don’t continue to let the deeper, less-visible bits of digital transformation be something that hit your organisation below the waterline while you focus on changing the bits that are in a customer’s sight-line. Your existing teams, within your existing departments, have tackled the parts within their ability.

It’s time to widen that out and create deep sustainable change as an organisation, by bringing in the new expertise at board level and creating a team with the right remit, the full range of specialisms needed for organisation design and digital builds.

We must start moving toward being fit not just for the future but for the times we live in now.

Sarah Lay is a freelance digital content strategist and journalist. She has worked across public and private sector designing and delivering award-winning large scale digital transformation projects and digital campaigns. She blogs about digital for Comms2Point0 and also independently.

Find her at and on Twitter @sarahlay.