Why digital innovation must be on the agenda for your union

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As a union leader, it’s important to stay aware of the newest digital innovations and technology in order to increase membership and support existing members.

To really stay ahead of potential disruption – in a world where digital innovation is essential and disruption more frequent – unions need to use new digital technologies to become more impactful and to more effectively recruit potential members.

For example, through innovative and attractive membership packages, new ways of organising online or via Zoom, or making union staff more impactful through using digital tools.

The point of digital transformation isn’t to become digital. It’s to build power for workers through making their union more impactful, effective and resilient in the face of shocks.

Having a clear, integrated, and agreed (agreed with leadership, staff and members) road-map of how your union will transform and adapt will ensure you get the best benefit of “digital transformation” and new technology.

For assistance in this transition, contact the ACTU’s Australian Trade Union Institute or the Trade Union Innovation Hub. The ATUI also has a collection of case-studies of unions using digital technology to organise during the pandemic.

The pandemic accelerated how quickly and dramatically the economy, workplaces and society is changing

The COVID-19 crisis upturned the world of work as we know it, and while there are many powerful interests trying to return to “normal”, there are profound shifts that have occurred in Australia and elsewhere that will not be wound back.

The pandemic has forced organisations (including unions) to accelerate their digitisation strategies and innovate their processes in order to survive, something that would have normally taken years. The changes have been extremely quick and intense.

For employers, this has meant an unprecedented shift in the ways their organisations operate. Employers (rarely through choice) put unheard-of measures in place at speed, such as remote and flexible working options, health and safety policies, digitisation of resources, and more. (Even work that couldn’t become remote have been impacted by major digital transformations.)

The rapid shift towards a digital world has enabled employers to continue expand their surveillance and control of workers, increase their profits (in most cases) and transfer risk to workers and the government.

(UniGlobal, the global union federation for service unions, has been at the forefront of this shift. Recently, they released a must-read report on the impact of algorithmic management and how unions can collectively respond.)

At the same time, this shift has changed the work expectations of workers.

As a result of the pandemic, many workers now expect employers to continue to offer flexible working options post-pandemic – something that was previously rare but is now becoming the norm for hundreds of thousands of workers. Employers have had to adapt how they manage remote teams; rather than relying on face-to-face meetings and office culture, employers need to find creative ways to engage their remote teams and ensure they feel part of a workplace family.

This change to remote work has had significant implications for workplace organising, activism, delegate development and workplace democracy.

As we move into our third year of this pandemic and beyond, it is clear that the way work is done will not be the same as it once was. Employers will continue to exploit the pandemic and related transformation to increase control over workers, boost profits and externalise risk.

Why digital innovation is vital for growth

By investing in digital technologies, unions can gain an edge by providing a better service than their rivals.

And who are rivals for unions? With union membership at 14-16% of the workforce, the alternatives that workers see to union membership are:

  • HR departments
  • friendly supervisors
  • the Fair Work Ombudsman
  • law firms, legal aid or community legal centres
  • the free advice that workers get from friends and family
  • the free work advice from forums like Reddit or on Facebook or Twitter
  • the free online work advice content from publishers like the ABC or Seek.com

In short, our competition are “free” sources of workplace rights information — not other unions.

To stay ahead of these free alternatives, unions need to adopt digital innovation within all of our operations, internally with our administration, finances and membership, and also with our organising, industrial services, bargaining and communications.

Digital transformation is now a critical element of growth, not just to reduce costs or streamline operations.

With the right digital tools, unions can experiment with creative and engaging ways to attract new members.

From customised information campaigns to targeted newsletters, unions can reach out to their target audience in ways that traditional communications and organising methods can’t. With the right strategies and tools in place, unions can become more visible, more financially sustainable and more successful in recruiting and (importantly) retaining members.

What’s more, resource-intensive and time-consuming activities like industrial servicing (e.g. wage-theft claims) can be sped up or have some manual elements automated.

By investing in innovative technologies and experimenting with creative approaches to recruitment, unions can become stronger and more effective organisations that are ready to take on the challenges of today.

Have a clear set of digital priorities

Unions must embrace digital transformation if we are to remain successful and relevant. This means that we need to develop a clear digital strategy and prioritise investments in digital technology and (especially) digital literacy.

Real-time decision making is an essential component of the digital transformation process, as it helps unions stay across what employers are doing and allows them to quickly respond to the changing needs of their members. Investing in data-driven analysis and member insights can help unions make more informed decisions and identify new opportunities for growth.

Unions should focus on member experience, as it has been proven to increase member satisfaction and loyalty (and therefore long-term member retention).

This means improving communication amongst members, offering online services, and making it easier for members to access the union’s services remotely (e.g. working from home). Determining which communications and services is one of the main things that a solid member insights program can assist with.

Finally, unions should ensure that there is high digital literacy across all staff. By ensuring all your staff can effectively use the basic tools of Microsoft (Excel, Teams, Word) unions can reduce operational costs and improve overall effective use of member-resources.

Embed real-time decision making into your organising & industrial strategies

Real-time decision making should be is an integral part of any union’s organisation, industrial strategies, communications and campaigns.

Real-time decision making is the ability to make decisions based on new information as it becomes available. It gives unions the edge when it comes to responding to ever-changing conditions. With real-time data, unions can take advantage of opportunities and act quickly when necessary.

Digital innovation also brings new opportunities for unions to communicate with their members in real-time. Social media platforms like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, or SMS let them update their members on the latest developments and call them to action — something a few unions are already taking advantage of.

Inside the union, real-time collaboration tools like Teams or Slack can help union staff located in different areas of Australia work together on projects. This helps create a more productive work environment, as everyone can now access the same information as it is updated in real-time.

Real-time decision making is an essential tool for unions, not only to keep up with the changing environment, but also to remain responsive to opportunities that will benefit your members. Taking advantage of these technologies allows unions to put the power of real-time data analytics and digital innovation into their hands.

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