7 tribes of digital?

7 tribes of digital

This is my half of a conversation that @Sarahlay and I had at @Localgovcamp.  She has written an excellent piece about it here which you should probably read first. Its also the next post in my thinking around networked or digital leadership which you can read about here.

Sarah and I were jointly frustrated by the way in which the conversation at the LGComms Academy seemed to be turning the term ‘digital’ into ‘social media’ – we both felt that this was limiting the discussion.  I don’t want to knock the event – which was excellent – but this specific aspect really grated on me.

This question of definitions of what digital really means reflects something which I have been working on in a low key kind of way: digital leadership and the 7 tribes of digital. I have been noticing for a while now that when working with leadership – including politicians and officers – that often the term digital has taken on a very specific meaning within the group and that this is reflected in the strategy they are taking with the use of new technology.

Social media can in one sense be described as the first wave of a whole series of digital and networked technologies which are disrupting the way in which live our lives. As a communication medium its not surprising that it’s effect is the most obvious to non-technologists but as someone who has been deeply engaged in the development of social media for some years now I am fascinated by the way in which it is being absorbed by mainstream professions and practice. I think that what we were seeing at LGComms was the attempt by the communications profession to ‘normalise’ social media as simply being ‘just another communication channel’. Contrast that with what will going on at #commscamp tomorrow (something I am GUTTED to be missing and will be following online) where a group of self-selected expert enthusiasts will be attempting to understand and learn from the disruption that social media has brought to their profession. If it wasn’t really lazy writing I would be contrasting comms 1.0 with comms 2.0 – damn it – I just did.

When I think about this in a leadership context I wonder what happens when an organisation believes it is using social media in a future focused way when in fact it has simply created an online newsletter in 140 characters?

I have not included social media in the 7 tribe below as I think its now fairly mainstream – I believe the debate around it is much more about whether or not its being used to support new ways of working and thats a job for the social change tribe.

The 7 tribes of digital These tribes have been built up from my own observations. I have been testing them for a while now and though there is some debate around the definitions the model seems to work for people. I would be very interested to hear if you see different tribes. In the definition below I use the term digital to refer to digital and networked technologies as its a lot to type each time:

  1. Social Change Tribe. This definition of digital is rooted in cultural change. I have to confess its my home tribe and the focus for this group is on the way in which digital offer up new kinds of relationships and change power dynamics. In a democratic context this is about different forms of decision making and different relationships between citizen and state. Within an organisation this is about more agile and networked structures being preferred over hierarchy. This is the natural place for the disruptive communicators – the people who want social media to drive new ways of working and not just provide a new place to try and control the message.
  2. Social Innovation Tribe. I am in two minds (based on feedback) if this is the social innovation or social business tribe but this group are focused on the way in which digital can drive new, socially responsible economics. This tribe are also interested in new operating models and blended delivery models such as mutuals or social enterprise.
  3. Big Data Tribe. This is the tribe who are focused on the way in which digital enables us to collect data and analyse data in order to better support decision making. In its best form this is about creating more responsive decision making, at its worst this is an exercise in paternalistic surveillance and manipulation. Big data requires a shift from knowing all of the information to knowing enough information to make a decision and undoubtably provides us with the opportunity to look at problems in a completely new way. However without a careful look at the ethics of this you can easily end up on the path the kind of mass manipulation that Facebook has recently been criticised for. One of the big debates of the 21st Century will be around the ethics of big data which is why the Open Data movement is so critical to this area – don’t lets use it just to ‘nudge’ people.
  4. Radical Redesign Tribe. These are the people who are bringing design thinking to service planning – arguably something we should have been doing for some time. It can feel a bit like a cult (if you think so wait until you meet the people really using agile methods – now that is a cult) but the use of co-design in this can sometimes mask the fact that we have not yet worked out the role of the elected representative in this process
  5. Digital by Default Tribe. These guys are fairly simple – they believe we can make everything better if it’s online. Really? Just putting it online? The best of the digital by default thinking is also looking at digital exclusion and making sure that they whole shift to digital is accessible to the whole population.
  6. Digital Architecture Tribe. This tribe is looking at how we create the right environment – working on the assumption that if we get that right other great stuff will happen. This is a natural home of forward thinking IT people and includes projects on super-fast broadband, 4G, and a desire to put everything into a cloud-based architecture. These are probably the poor folks who have been wrestling with PSN.
  7. Digital Cargo Cult. Last but by no means least – these are the enthusiasts who have little or no knowledge of what it means but DEFINITELY want a app – it’s shiny, and they want it. For more on the bizarre world of cargo cults Wikipedia provides a helpful starting point.

My real point is that each of these tribes have part of the picture – but if your strategy gets captured by just one or two tribes you are not going to be able to unlock the greater possibilities for transformation that offers. I think this is a leadership challenge and also why we have to start having zero tolerance for a lack of real digital literacy around the top table of organisations. Its not enough to have enthusiasts within the organisation – this is a key strategic issue.

Leadership matters – lots of great things can happen at the frontline and we can make huge strides with innovative pilots and experiments but if you want to shift the core strategy of an organisation and scale then you have to have active leadership from senior people. This is not simply ‘buy-in’ which I always interpret as a benevolent and often passive agreement not to oppose but instead active, energetic informed leadership working with their organise to shape change as it happens. You can’t achieve this if you simply think of ‘digital’ as being that 140 character newsletter. Leadership is essential not just in terms of effective decision making because we don’t want this to be a values-less exercise. Technologists make values based decisions everyday and if they are not being guided by shared strategic and cultural principles set by organisational leaders who understand what they are doing then they are likely to make at best chaotic and at worst bad choices.

Ensuring our digital spaces reflect our cultural values is going to be a key aspect to leadership in the 21st Century. This thinking is translating into a digital leadership programme that we are trialling in Cambridgeshire (it starts in a couple of weeks and I will blog about progress). Its going to run in parallel with a networked councillor cohort which is a great chance to see how you interleave learning between political and non-political leadership. In a shorter format the slides below capture some of these ideas in a masterclass session I did for Solace (this session also had great case studies from the marvellous @carlhaggerty of Devon and @Henrybranson from Eastbourne):

I have not even touched on some of the upcoming tribes such as quantified self, internet of things, makers and of course the digital civic space tribe I am trying to get started.  The most important thing is perhaps making sure that we are all ready to learn because we cannot allow digital to be captured and normalised – we have to open up and accept the disruption if we want to achieve the transformative potential of new technologies.

The report and some important thanks Being of a research mindset I have been testing this idea on a few groups and individuals and we captured these thoughts here: Digital leadership .  I am very grateful to SOCITIM, Solace and the LGA who have contributed to this in the form of a couple of structured discussions on the subject. Special thanks to Jos Creese, Steve Halliday, Michael Coughlin and Graeme Macdonald who have each reviewed and improved the report.

  1. vsargent

    July 6, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    Might be worth taking a look at Socitm’s ‘Do you do digital?’ document, written for top management in local authorities and published in April. This attempts to provide a quick guide to the scope, reach and progress of digital in local public
    services and to present some ideas about what ‘good looks like’. The document includes our definition of ‘digital’ as implying ‘technologies that allow people without programming skills (eg citizens, service users, employees, suppliers and others) to interact directly with other people, locations and organisations via the internet, using a desktop computer, mobile device, kiosk or other ‘consumer’ interface’. It goes on to state that ‘while ‘digital’ means something different to almost everyone, most people would agree that it is important, transformative and positively disruptive’. At the end of the document we set out Socitm’s five key digital principles, covering customer service; service redesign;
    engagement; ways of working; and demand management. Ten further supporting principles cover digital leadership and governance; capability; sharing; agile; transparency; usability; system selection; take-up; assisted digital; and performance. Do you do digital is available free to download at http://www.socitm.net/research/socitm-insight/insight-reports/do-you-do-digital

    • curiouscatherine

      July 7, 2014 at 9:27 am

      Fantastic report pimping!

      Yes – this is worth a read as is the NLGN report (http://www.nlgn.org.uk/public/2014/smart-people-smart-places-realising-digital-local-government/)

      The reason I believe something is missing in this discussion – hence the 7 tribes – is that a technical definition doesn’t actually reflect the behaviours of the different tribes. So many people are struggling to understand ‘The Truth’ about digital and not accepting the fact that its a contested term and one which is evolving. The leadership challenge is appreciating the disruption and shaping it to resonant with organisational priorities.


  2. Matt Steel (@MattDSteel)

    July 7, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I love the concept od a Digital Cargo Cult, a very apt description for people who admire the shiny world of digital and view it as the magic bullet. It is interesting seeing how you have categorised the tribes, but I have rarely come across anyone who I would call a purist in any one of them.

  3. Steve Halliday (@SteveHalliday0)

    July 7, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    I love the idea of Digital tribes, but I think the digital categories are more like personality traits, than tribes. Any of us can have many of these Digital traits, with some more dominant than others.

    As Matt says, very few people would be a purist in any one of these tribes.

    To use myself as an example tribesman. If I picked my personal top three digital motivators, I’m interested in Social Change, Social Innovation and Radical Redesign.

    In my job as a Head of ICT, I have been an Architectural Tribesman (one of the “poor folks who have been wrestling with PSN”. But I’m clearly a foreigner, far from my natural tribelands.

    If you think of it less as “Tribes” and more as “Traits”, (a bit like Myers Briggs*), then I am an RCI type (Radical design, social Change, social Innovation).

    In my experience most people will have many digital Traits. If I was to hazard a cheeky guess, I’d say you exhibit Change, Innovation, Data and Cargo traits (CIDC type), Catherine. You know you are always telling me my kit is not new and shiny enough!

    Thanks for the name check, by the way – always a pleasure chatting digital with you.


    * Here’s a Myers Briggs summary, for the uninitiated: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers-Briggs_Type_Indicator)

    • curiouscatherine

      July 7, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      I like the traits vs tribes – will mull on this a bit more

      I guess what I am trying to get at is the way in which people with one set of knowledge fix on this as The Answer and lose site of the fact that there are other skills/knowledge which are needed. Perhaps its an absence of real intellectual collaboration?

      Anyway – as ever you made me think!

      I accept your CIDC categorisation as long as you are prepared to add social back into the change tag!!



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