How can we stay human as we go digital?

It’s helpful for groups “going digital” to consider the move socially – rather than simply technologically.

A good starting point is to talk about how your people work together. Do they cooperate, or compete? Is there mutually beneficial collaboration amongst teams? What is the organizational morale?

The fact is, the rise of the digital “sharing” culture asks us as individuals to be more connected, more in conversation. And our groups are being asked to become more responsive, creative and open as a result. Indeed, increasingly, members, staff, volunteers and the public expect this of our organizations. This is especially true for the members of emerging generations, many of whom take the web’s interconnectivity completely for granted.

All of this means our organizations need to cultivate a new kind of work culture. One that is less hierarchical. One that is more communicative. One that lets our natural collaborative tendencies to emerge.

Digital allows us to collaborate more easily in vibrant and participatory ways – ways that our organizations need to embody if we are to use these tools fully and wisely.

These new ways tend to be more:

  • Connected
  • Informed
  • Networked
  • Responsive
  • Flexible
  • Horizontal, and
  • Empowered

Yes, the technology helps us work in these ways. But it’s not because we have the technology that we work in these ways. We work in these ways because people, especially those working for a common goal or cause, are inclined to work together and cooperate. Today’s technology lets us do that in vastly more powerful ways that connect, network and leverage people power like never before.

Learning how to “share digital” and change how we work may be a challenge for many organizations. It can be difficult to change how we work, but we need to face today’s digital reality. Organizational departments are using digital tools that were formerly the purview of communications, marketing and IT departments. Now everyone is using digital tools – from research and education to administration, organizing and member services.

The change is happening, and our organizations can choose to “be the change” – or we can be changed, perhaps not on our own terms.

And here’s the challenge. The digital choices we make can help balance against the potential sense of human “absence” often experienced in the virtual world.

THE CHALLENGE: NOT LEAVING OUR HUMANITY BEHIND

Many people fear we leave behind our essential humanity when we go digital or take things online. And there is legitimate concern there.

Tech change by nature disturbs our world. It unsettles the status quo, and changes how we do things. We can feel confused, even suspicious. We can be fearful that we stand to lose something, or that we will be left behind.

Sometimes this fear masks aversion or resistance to change. And this is understandable in our current moment of intense and ongoing “disruption” where super-fast-paced tech change is upending our world. Nothing seems to be staying constant.

Often these kinds of concerns are expressed when our organizations talk about taking something online that historically, or culturally, has been done face-to-face. Think of an activity like learning or training. People can feel that we will leave behind that sense of human connection and togetherness that face-to-face connection affords. They see the value of bringing people together and sharing an in-person experience and they fear its loss when we “go digital.” We forego, they say, all the subtle things that make up human connection – our smiles, affirmations, body language, laughter, or just our presence being together in a room – when we take learning online from a shared, physical space to a fragmented and sometimes individual virtual space.

THE SOLUTION: WE HAVE CHOICES

The ways we do digital things, all the things, how we learn, work and play – is faster, more immediate, more electronic, more connected, more networked and more disembodied than ever before. But we have choices.

Whether it’s learning online, having a “conversation” on social media or “connecting” in a forum – there are many strategies and approaches to keep things human while developing your digital program.

The choices we make can help us balance out the potential sense of human “absence” often experienced in the virtual world. That’s why the spirit with which we engage in digital publishing and engagement makes all the difference.

5 KEY TO STAYING HUMAN

  1. Explore. Experiment, take risks, fail and grow
  2. Establish. Choose the right platforms and tools
  3. Connect. Maintain a sense of presence
  4. Converse. Strike a conversational tone, tell a good story, and
  5. Mix it up. Create and publish a diverse mixture of multimedia content

Key #1 – Explore

To err is human. To build digital capacity, divine.

Well, if not divine, then certainly a requirement for organizations that want to be relevant in the digital age.

The simple fact is organizations can’t grow into digital powerhouses without exploring, taking risks and failing.

Expecting perfection from our initial efforts is counter-productive. Who among us has ever learned by doing something perfectly for the first time? There’s a reason bikes for kids have training wheels!

It’s possible that our organizations take our digital selves too seriously, that we try to be uber-slick and professional because that’s what the digital marketing industry tells us we should be like. And hey, that doesn’t mean we can’t produce excellent product. We should always aim to produce excellent product – and have boatloads of fun doing so.

One of my yoga teachers would always remind us: “Far better to practice your own yoga imperfectly than to imitate someone else’s perfectly.”

Yes.

And I would say the same about going digital: Far better for us to be our digital selves imperfectly than mimic someone else’s perfectly. Our members and supporters know the difference. They know what is truly “us” and what is digital veneer, tacked on. Far better for us to keep things authentic, regardless of how it’s published or shared.

Our digital approach mirrors our wider organizational approach.

Key #2 – Platforms and tools

How do you decide what kinds of platforms and tools you need to use? You’d be surprised. You may not need to rush to set up the latest and greatest online platform that promises to organize, teach, engage, capture and convert your people.

You might just need a website to house your program’s reading and viewing content, forums to connect your people, one or two purposeful social media channels to do outreach to promote your program and to support informal groups to facilitate certain discussions.

The market is changing, at a dizzying pace. New products are rolled out constantly, with ever-simpler user interfaces, more multimedia and discussion capabilities, and automated features that allow for easier and more efficient administration of programs, among other features.

But this dizziness can be fun, too. After all, new tools and functions is the fun part – the shiny stuff.

However, we sometimes rush to establish platforms and start using tools before fully considering what our purpose is and what our goals are. A slick website with all the features is one thing. Relevant, interesting and accessible content is another.

Whatever your choices, ask questions like these:

  • What does it look like from the perspective of a total beginner?
  • How clear is our language?
  • How welcoming is our design?
  • Is it easy for people to access all the tools and functions of the platform – for example, engaging with learning material, uploading comments, participating in discussions, connecting with others?

A platform, as defined by the authors of Digital Habitats, is simply “a technology package that integrates a number of tools available in the marketplace (for purchase or for free) that one can acquire, install, or rent.”

Let your purpose and goals help you decide on your platform. See The Content Spiral for more on this idea.

Key #3 – Presence

In the online learning example, it’s vital to create a sense of “teacher presence” – just as it is in face-to-face learning contexts. (I’m sure all of us have had classroom experiences that were less than satisfying).

We create a better sense of online presence by orienting the learning experience around the user or learner. Being welcoming, anticipating and answering questions, addressing concerns – all of these help create a sense of connection and togetherness in the virtual world.

A conversational tone and a good story help, too.

Key #4 – Conversation and story

You may have noticed that “story” dominates the advertising world today. That’s because marketers have realized that marketing is now a conversation about a story – and a story about a conversation. Advertisers leverage today’s digital technologies to engage with customers and “leads” through social media, interactive web apps and more to tell that story and hold that conversation.

For our part, whether as customers or as consumers (of the web generally), we have grown accustomed to having our say – and to being heard. The culture of digital conversation – informal, fast, ubiquitous – is the context in which our people increasingly exist.

Our members, volunteers, staff and supporters arrive at our websites and platforms with this cultural expectation. We run the risk of underestimating the impact and power of the marketing industry’s profound role in shaping our collective expectations of an online experience – and even our consciousness.

Key # 5 – Multimedia

The world is our oyster when it comes to engaging with people online. Our daily practice of going down social media rabbit holes is evidence of this.

Cast your eyes across the World Wide Web. What do you see? You see:

  • Websites
  • Videos and animation
  • Photos and slideshows
  • Games
  • Apps
  • Music
  • Podcasts
  • Articles, essays, stories, poems
  • Webinars and livestreams
  • Social media and more

Any of these content types, and more, can be stirred into your content mix. Just figure out what kind of content tells your story best – to this particular audience, at this particular time, for this particular reason. Being strategic with your content is a good thing.

It’s the diversity of your digital content mix that makes online engagement exciting, dynamic – and human. The challenge is to be thoughtful about what we create or what we curate (content that is made by others that we share to illustrate or deepen our stories).

KEEPING IT HUMAN KEEPS IT REAL

All of this is why groups need to establish cross-cultural dialogue on the subject of going digital. Groups would do well to create internal conversations about the need to go digital and to create space for the expression of doubt, disagreement and even divergence. We need to hear from digital’s proponents in an unhurried, unharried way and we need to listen to what concerns people have about technological and organizational change.

Not everyone in your organization is going to equally “adopt” new tools or “adapt” to new digital realities.

Not everyone has to agree or be “in the same place” when it comes to tech change.

But there’s another reason to stay human as we develop our digital programs. Keeping it real paves a smoother path for us to align our strategies, including our digital strategies.

And with digital, a little alignment goes a long, long way.