Does your union leadership “get” digital?

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Research undertaken in 2012 by pro-union academic Panos Panagiotopoulos found that globally, unions are increasingly viewing digital tools as essential to improving communications and member engagement. Over 61% of unions said that digital was considered a “priority” given budget and time constraints.

Since then, it’s clear that the capabilities and benefits of digital tools (including web, email, social and data) are rapidly expanding. Increasingly, unions are engaging in skill sharing, often facilitated by peak-bodies such as the ACTU and VTHC in Australia, and the AFL-CIO in the US.

There is no doubt that digital is growing in all areas of union work. Whether you’re an organiser, communications officer, campaigner or industrial officer, you are likely using digital tools more often. This could be in the use of data analysis, interrogation or visualisation tools, or communications and campaign tools like email and petitions, or through access to more sophisticated and useful databases. Unions are increasingly bringing “digital” in-house, rather than using agencies. This is because unions recognise (more and more) that digital skills are becoming core competencies.

No matter what position you hold in your union, you will be impacted by digital tools. The question is, is your union and its leadership, prepared?

In my view, there are four models that unions can take to approaching and structuring their adoption of digital tools and capabilities.

Informal adoption

This kind of adoption and approach is characterised by an ad hoc approach. No one person in the union “owns” digital or is a champion, but it is rather officials use digital tools as and when required. This approach can be beneficial because it can reduce costs and ensures the union adopts only the tools it needs. However, it can be inefficient and ineffective because adoption is inconsistent.

Centralised adoption

Some unions have designated digital staff — “the Internet people” — who lead digital adoption and cater to the needs of other officials in the union. These can often by IT staff, or more likely the “young” organisers and communications officers. This can have the benefit of ensuring that adoption of specific tools is decisive and purposeful, but has the downsides of creating silos and disconnection between the “digital” people and organising teams. Similarly, it can create bottlenecks due to demand or time constraints.

Decentralised adoption

With this model, the union has “digital experts” across functional groups, e.g. within organising teams, communications units and industrial teams. Each area may have one or two “gurus” (often the “young” member of the team) who are considered the “go to” person for all-things digital (e.g. social media, email or website updates). This obviously has the benefit of ensuring that digital tools are more widely used and supporting the wide variety of activities within the union, and avoids the issue of silos. It does create the challenge of uneven and uncoordinated use of tools, and has the potential for duplication (e.g. one team using a specific tool that’s different to another team).

Hybrid adoption

The final model of digital adoption for unions is a hybrid between the centralised and decentralised. In this model, the union has a “digital team” or staff who are leaders within the union, who train, support and guide officials in functional teams. E.g. a digital manager or officer who assists organisers to use digital tools in organising teams. This has the benefit of expanding the use of powerful digital tools across the union, improving skills and ensuring coordination. However, the downside is that the union leadership gives up some centralised control over the use of digital tools, especially with broadcast tools.

One of the things I’ve noted for many years now is that unions who are embracing the adoption of digital tools are situating their digital staff primarily in communications teams. There are few (almost none that I’m aware of, although let me know in the comments) unions who have digital teams based in organising teams.

When I went on a study-tour to the USA in late 2013, the leading digital campaigners at OFA and the AFL-CIO emphasised that they believed integration of digital into teams was essential. This means that organising teams (or fundraising teams for non-profits) would include someone with digital skills, rather than having it as a separate department.

For unions, this means taking digital out of the realm of “communications” and making it a core competency for organisers, membership staff and industrial teams.

Just as the use of traditional mail (sending letters) or telephones (making phone calls) are not segregated to a “mail team” or “phone team”, so too should digital no longer be the province of just a digital or “comms” team.

Increasingly, it’s clear that achieving this is based on the understanding and acceptance of union leadership. A union with a champion or advocate for digital tools in its senior leadership ranks will adopt digital tools better than one without. You need a senior union leader that realises that digital tools serve the entire purpose of the union, rather than being confined to a single team.

Unfortunately, there are still some union leaders who are concerned or scared of digital tools, especially the risks of giving up control. The result however is that there’s no leadership internally and the union misses out on considerable opportunities.

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