Has the concept of a centralised digital department outlived its usefulness? Here, Sam Dorman and Chris Zezza of The Build Tank outline a model for approaching digital across organisations in a more integrated way – and ultimately creating and supporting campaigns and projects with the freedom, skills and support needed for high impact. Detangling Digital first appeared on The Build Tank.

If you ask five or ten different digital directors what their scope/remit is, the answers will be all over the map. You see completely different meanings of a digital department from organisation to organisation. In some cases it refers to digital campaigning and organising. In others it means writing and sending email. Some digital departments are made up of social media specialists. Still others feature traditional IT functions, and/or ownership of digital platforms like the CRM or website CMS.

If there is a clear singular function to the digital department, then we’ve got no quarrel with it. If your digital department is clearly focused on digital campaigning, for instance, you can call it whatever you like.

The problems creep in when a digital department becomes an excuse to mash together multiple disparate functions into a single home that strains to support them. In the most extreme cases, the digital department may even be asked to include all of the above functions at once, with the reasoning that they all involve digital technology in some way.

We liken that to the idea of having a “Department of Paper,” and insisting that all work involving paper must go through a single department. That concept is obviously absurd, but not too much more absurd than saying that all things digital nowadays go through a single digital team. How could that possibly work? How could anyone coherently manage communications, fundraising, social media, traditional IT, and tech platform development all together? How could you effectively prioritise or manage such a complex combination of workflows?

For some this may sound sacrilegious, since over the last decade or so the creation of a separate “digital” department often represented a hard-fought victory, wresting the control and management of all things digital away from staff who were masters of legacy systems and media but who were unfamiliar with how to harness the power of newer digital tools effectively.

But in today’s rapidly evolving world, we should admit that the big-D “Digital” umbrella has outlived its usefulness.

Smushing together digital has real, problematic consequences. It distracts people from their core work, undermines priorities, misaligns incentives, and causes core functions to slip through the cracks. You’re left with a team that is usually overwhelmed, constantly being asked to do things outside their areas of expertise, and frustrated as they row in different directions away from one other and other people in the organisation.

These days damn near everything is digital in some way, so we need more useful distinctions. When it comes time to untangle the undifferentiated digital mess, here’s a simple guiding principle: everyone should get to focus on their areas of expertise. Campaigners should spend their time campaigning. Communicators should spend their time communicating. Fundraisers should spend their time fundraising. IT staff should spend their time doing IT. Digital product managers should be evolving their digital products (such as CRM and CMS platforms).

Each of these is a complex area of expertise that requires focus and care, and should be supported in a department that supports and enhances its mission. And each should be able use the tools of their trade which, these days, include digital tools and mediums.

If you’re a campaigner who needs to send an email, you should be able to work through and negotiate your content and sending schedule with your campaigning and communications colleagues. Then between those teams, someone should be able to pull up a template on the email system, populate your content, and schedule the message. And this should be able to happen without having to compete for priority and attention with people who are developing your CRM system, or A/B testing website donation page copy, or fixing your office printers. The workflows and skillsets for each are entirely distinct.

So at this point, we most commonly find ourselves recommending the integration of digital skillsets back into every department according to the area of expertise.

For some organisations, this might only require a slight tweak – a few meaningful adjustments to job descriptions. For others, it could take a radical re-organisation, and those should never be undertaken lightly. But the appropriate structure for today’s organisation should reflect the reality that a basic level of digital fluency can no longer ever be “someone else’s” responsibility, it must be everyone’s.

And of course we’re not talking about every staff member learning highly technical configuration and development skills! Those should remain specialised. We’re just saying every department needs to include people who know how to use the digital tools that are part of their trade.

So once you get each of these other functions back to their home planets, is there still a need for any kind of digital specialisation? Yes! Very much so! In fact, sorting those functions back out leaves a clearer focus on the key gap that remains, which is the critical work of managing your core digital platforms (such as your CRM and CMS). Give these responsibilities to people who are focused, talented, and aspiring to become masters of that work. That’s the heart of a digital product team.

So if you’re in charge of a digital team and finding yourself in the business of herding cats and balancing unreasonable expectations, take a moment to think about what is at the core of your remit, and perhaps more importantly the core of your interest and talent. What do you think success looks like? Whatever it is, could that become the clear focus of your team? And could the other functions of digital be moved to the spot in the organisation where they can really thrive?

Everyone likes to geek out on something. Wouldn’t it be great, both in terms of staff happiness and organisational effectiveness, if people spent their time focused on the areas where they bring the most energy and talent to the table?

About the authors

Sam Dorman and Chris Zezza

Helping incubate high-quality technology into the fabric of social sector organisations at The Build Tank