Kill the Digital Department

The following piece can also be found on Medium.

“Where does the Analog department sit?”

The new Silicon Valley recruit posed the question to me as I escorted him through the Republican National Committee’s refurbished Digital & Technology Center.

But the question could just have easily been asked in the hallways of every U.S. company, non-profit organization, trade association or educational institution. It’s also the question that every executive should be asking themselves as they prepare their organization to thrive in today’s modern, informational environment.

Asking the original question another way: Does a successful digital team relegate the rest of the organization to being — analog?

Systems Theory tells us that optimizing a sub-component of a system does not optimize the system as a whole. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. Syphoning all digital expertise and resources to a single department can have the unintended consequence of draining other teams of the tools they need to succeed in today’s internet-driven world.

The time has come to transition digital expertise back into the rest of the organization. If managers want to build upon the successes achieved by their Digital Departments, they need to be willing to kill it.

The road won’t be easy. It will require a sustained commitment to professional education, internal communication and cultural change.

But the onus is not on traditional team members alone. Digital strategists bear responsibility as well. Too often, we treat our work as an esoteric dark art, which only discourages comprehension and frustrates opportunities for collaboration. Rather than trumpeting digital’s complexity, the goal should be to make it more accessible for the organization as a whole. Instead of a team of digital gurus, it will require a team of mentors.

As a Digital Director, colleagues from other corners of the organization would often admit in hushed tones, “I still don’t understand what you do.”

The answer, as it turns out, was a simple one.

In politics, there are three core objectives: 1) Voter Contact, 2) Messaging, and 3) Fundraising. And every year the Digital, Data, and Technology teams were playing a larger role in innovating and driving results for all three.

When viewed through the lens of a traditional organizational hierarchy, it was clear that ‘digital’ wasn’t a distinct vertical at all. It’s the modern, efficient vehicle for driving outcomes at scale. This is just as true if you work in investor relations or sales as it is if you manage a campaign volunteer office.

When resisting the emergence of digital, employees in traditional roles will often do their best to channel Tom Smykowski from Office Space, “I have people skills! I’m good at dealing with people!” Never mind that most of their interactions with people come via email, mobile text, social networks, online news media, etc. In your next internal meeting, take note of how many of your people-people are glued to their smartphones.

As a manager, it is easy to lose sight of the digital endgame when wading through reports of quantified metrics such as clicks, likes, and conversions. It becomes all too easy to forget that at other end of each engagement is a human customer, advocate or prospect.

When effective, digital strategy uses online activity to drive real, offlineactions central to an organization’s goals.

So what does all this mean?

The problem with expecting ‘analog’ teams to thrive in a digital world is self-evident. Though the underlying business objectives haven’t changed, the available toolkit has expanded dramatically. Maintaining a competitive advantage requires that the team members responsible for achieving those goals are proficient in modern strategies and have the resources available to employ them.

This is not to say that the idea of a Digital Department was doomed from the start. It has served an important role in the maturation of many political campaigns, companies, and organizations during a period of rapid, technological transformation. It provided the creative space for experimentation, skill development, and innovation.

Ultimately, managers will accountable for the transformation to a digital organization. They will need to get their hands dirty and develop their own comprehension of how online activity can drive success. It will be their responsibility to ensure that digital acumen exists in every corner of their organization. It will require their sustained commitment to internal communication, integration and oversight.

The next generation of successful managers will be those who build digital expertise throughout the entire organization — not limiting it to a single team. But first, they need to be bold enough to kill the digital department.

James Brown