Digitally-Enabled Learning — Digital Strategy
 

Creating a vision is the fun part. Making sure that you can achieve that vision relies on a well structured, effective strategy. In this chapter we share some of the lessons that we have learnt over many years of developing digital strategies with a range of organizations.

Once you have the first version of your digital vision then it is time to explore ways in which to achieve your aims and to map out the steps required.

Once again, a whole-organization approach, including involving the wider membership of the community that you serve, will bear fruit here. As with the vision, it is harder work up front but the benefits will be felt as you move towards your goals.

Educational organizations of different sizes will, of necessity, approach strategy development in very different ways. A small school with only three teachers will obviously take a different approach to a large university.

However, the core elements of digital strategy development that we introduce here remain applicable no matter what the size of your organization and we have used these ideas with organizations ranging from small schools to large school districts.

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Digital Strategy — Know where you are

Before you even start developing your strategy you need to really understand your starting point.

Understanding the current state of your digital provision and its use by staff, students, parents, governors and the wider community will help you set priorities within the strategy and provide a baseline from which you can measure progress.

We really cannot overstate how important identifying your baseline digital environment is to the success of your whole project. Being able to identify, explicitly and accurately the current issues you face, the expertise you have and the areas of best practice that you can leverage is a fundamental element in developing an effective strategic plan.

Digital infrastructure

One of the first areas to explore is the technology that you have deployed across your organization — your digital infrastructure.

You probably have some feeling about how good your digital infrastructure is but now is the time to create an accurate, up-to-date audit of the technology that is being used at the moment.

Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to completing your audit, especially the first one, since knowing as much detail as possible is vitally important to the success of your future strategy.

Your technology audit should, ideally, be carried out by someone other than your in-house team. It’s not that they are not competent and they probably have very clear views on ‘what needs to be done’ to improve their infrastructure. You need to have an outside view from one or more knowledgeable people who can give you a full and frank assessment of where you are and, hopefully, some suggestions about what you might do to move forward.

Who carries out your technology audit will be an important factor in the speed and effectiveness of your overall strategy so think carefully about who you invite.

Sometimes you may be able to use staff from another, local organization with which you have close links and which seems to have a good technology platform.

Most likely, however, you will want to invite in one or more professionals who have experience of carrying out such audits and can ask the right questions about your infrastructure.

Make sure that anyone who comes in to help you with this review has experience of carrying out such a review within an educational organization.

Schools, colleges and universities have a subtly different working and technology environment to many businesses and whoever comes in to help you with your review should be aware of the specific, often very different needs of educational organizations.

Technology Team

You need to take a long, hard look at your technology support team and assess their current state.

The technology team will be the engine that drives a lot of your transformational journey. Not only will they come under a lot of pressure as, hopefully, more and more staff and students make use of a greater number of digital tools but they will also be challenged to learn new things which may (probably will) take them out of their comfort zones.

So you really do need to take stock of your technology team before you push on with your digital strategy. This will inform your budget planning and also the pace at which you can expect to move forward with your change programme.

Technology Team — Personnel:
Questions to ask about your technology team include, but are not limited to, some of the following:

Do you have a balanced set of skills, experience, enthusiasm and interest? 
Is the team cohesive? Do they work well together and have each other’s back?

Is the team leader, whatever their job title, leading the team well and helping you make full use of the tools?

Are the team being supported in adopting new technologies through the provision of on-going, effective professional development?

What do other people, staff and students, say about members of the team?

Technology Team — Policies and Practices

The policies and practices adopted by your technology team need constant review to ensure that they are adapting to the needs of your organization as a whole.

The review should cover aspects such as:

Support practices 
How do the team provide support and help to staff and students? Is this support documented and used to inform decisions about future purchases and activities?

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Head of ICT, Dartington Hall Trust talks about ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus

Procurement policies and practices 
Does the technology team have a clear, documented approach to procurement? How do they procure different types and levels of technology? Are the team providing best value?

Policies 
What policies are in place? When were they last updated and by who? Do the policies cover your legal obligations? Do the policies cover the operational requirements for your organization? Are the policies clear and understood by staff and students? Are the policies used effectively?

Documentation and reporting 
Are important issues and actions fully documented? What information is reported to the senior leadership team? What documentation and reporting is provided to staff and students? Is the documentation used? Are the reports provided useful?

A word of caution. Try to make your IT team feel as involved as possible in the audit and help them understand that it is about preparing to move forward rather than criticizing the past. It is important that whoever is carrying out the audit has the full cooperation of your in-house IT team, which, in some cases, may be hard.
 
Equally, whilst you may try to involve the IT team, don’t be overly concerned about ‘hurt feelings’. We see too many organizations where their use of digital tools is held back by one or more members of the IT team who, often for the best of intentions, have very fixed views on technology and who seem ‘irreplaceable’.

The results of your technology audit may make hard reading. There may be a mountain of bad news about out-of-date computers, poor networking and old servers.

Policies may be out of date or missing, perhaps your technical team has been gradually de-skilled through lack of professional development.

It’s better to know about these things now so that your strategy can focus on putting them right before you attempt any major, new initiatives.

Use of digital tools

As an educator you may find that this is the most interesting part of the audit. It actually compliments the technology audit really well and allows you to consider whether technical or other issues are having an impact on the use of digital tools across your organization.

You should consider using a variety of methods to audit the use of digital tools across the curriculum since you want to understand this as deeply as possible.

Examples include some of the following:

Student Work and classroom activities 
Often, when seeing a school for the first time, we can garner an understanding of the use of digital tools simply by wandering around and seeing classroom/corridor displays and the frequency of digital activities being carried out in classrooms.

Look at how the resources in classrooms are being used and consider the relative maturity of their use.

Are tools being used by both teacher and student? Are tools being used as and when required or are they being ‘artificially’ integrated in ways that seem awkward or contrived?

Auditing student work and methods of feedback and assessment will also help, as will a trawl through the minutes of subject/department staff meetings and schemes of work. This sounds like a lot of time-consuming hard work but it is amazing how quickly you can gain a good picture of the ways in which digital is being used through these activities.

Informal feedback Talking to your students and parents can also highlight some interesting issues and opportunities.

Frequently, when we are asked to audit the use of digital tools in an organization we gather a great deal of useful feedback just standing in line at the food counter and chatting to students. You would be amazed at the insights, often good quality, we gather waiting for food at lunchtime!

Time spent in these discussions will provide valuable insights into the attitudes that both students and staff have towards the use of digital tools.

This is crucial since evidence suggests that unless both students and staff have a positive attitude towards the use of technology for learning and teaching any technology initiative will probably fail.

Formal Feedback 
You should also provide a simple questionnaire to pupils, staff and parents. We tend to use Google Forms since the graphs produced by the tool are easy to create and often very useful.

Keep the forms relatively short and easy to understand, especially the first one that you do. Focus on some key issues, that you may already know about, alongside some more general technology questions.

Make these questionnaires anonymous so that you are more likely to get open and honest feedback. Whilst you will almost certainly have some ‘weird and wonderful’ comments in these anonymous questionnaires, the majority of responses will be useful and will certainly provide you with some data that will identify trends in use.

We have seen some really interesting and enlightening feedback from such questionnaires and the examples below are given to demonstrate some of the ways in which organization have used this data to help shape and develop their on-going digital strategies.

Auditing the use of digital tools — Interactive Whiteboards

One organization which considered itself to be making really effective use of Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) technologies found that both students and staff identified using the tools only infrequently during the week (below 20% of the time) and that very little of this use involved student interactions with the whiteboards.

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SAP Young ICT Explorers 2015

As a result, the organization had a decision to make. They were about to invest over £1 million in new technologies and had planned to update their whiteboards with new models.

Given the results of the survey they questioned their future plans. They revisited their vision, discussed the future with staff and students and, as a result, decided to refocus their efforts towards improving the use of Interactive Whiteboards with an emphasis on engaging more students in using the tools.

They invested in new whiteboard technologies, implemented a structured professional development programme and re-emphasized the importance of the technology. Two years later IWBs were being used in over 70% of lessons and student use had grown to over 40%.

More importantly perhaps, building upon the focus on interactive whiteboard tools, the organization had developed new approaches to teaching and learning which had seen an improvement in exam results, particularly for groups of students who had previously been low achievers.

In this case the school had used their focus on the use of a particular, core technology, to help them introduce a more learner-centered, interactive and responsive approach to learning and teaching which had benefits far beyond the use of the technology around which it was developed. This has been a recurring theme in some of the most successful schools with which we have worked.

Identifying the need for a new approach and then using one or more core technologies to introduce and extend the implementation of this new approach across the curriculum as a whole.

Auditing the use of digital tools — Online Learning

In another organization which had invested heavily in an online learning environment the questionnaire showed that whilst students were enthusiastically using some of the tools many of the staff were not engaging with them or, if they were using the system it was at a very superficial level.
 
Considering the costs associated with the provision of these tools the senior leadership used the results of the survey, alongside other feedback, to develop a programme of professional development for staff that focused on using a core set of tools and introduced half termly audits to measure progress and help them understand where support needed to be focused.

Over the following 18 months use of the online learning tools increased to a point where over 60% of lessons incorporated some form of online element. This had a further positive side-effect in encouraging more parents to interact with the school through these online tools.

Auditing the use of digital tools — School District

The senior leadership of a school district had become concerned about the use of digital technologies across their schools and commissioned an audit before they developed an improvement plan.

The questionnaire identified that very little use of digital tools was being made within schools by both staff and students. However, both groups were using technology, especially Internet-based tools, outside of school.

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Digital Connections Partnership Schools Grant

The audit identified a preponderance of old, out-dated systems across all their schools and technology teams who were spending more time ‘fire fighting’ issues than planning and implementing useful tools. In addition, many members of the technology team had not received any formalized training on new technologies for several years and had become de-skilled and somewhat demoralized.

It was clear that something dramatic had to be done in order to improve outcomes for their students and the leadership worked with the schools and members of the Hive Knowledge Group to formulate a plan which involved improvements to technology, professional development and support for the technology team.

In particular, there was a focus on improving the reliability of the technology infrastructure being used.

Over the following two years the core infrastructure was replaced and a programme of replacing items such as desktop computers, laptops, printers, etc. was developed.

The programme of developments, in particular the refurbishment of the main technology infrastructure, resulted in a measurable increase in the use of digital tools by both staff and students as confidence grew in the reliability of the technology.

Better to know before you plan

Whilst carrying out a wide-ranging audit of your current situation may be onerous and sometimes present you with unwelcome news, it is always better to know where you are before you start developing your new strategy.

Such an audit helps you identify which areas you need to prioritize in order to ensure the most effective, initial impact and gives you a baseline from which you can measure future progress.

We would always put ensuring the reliability and availability of core infrastructure, hardware, services and software ahead of everything else. No matter how great a new technology is or how wonderful a professional development programme you have planned, if things don’t work effectively and reliably, teachers and students will not build them into their everyday activities.

Remember, whatever the outcome, good or bad, this is your starting point and from now on things will start to get better.

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Developing your digital strategy

An effective strategy is really very simple.

It maps out what you want to do, why you want to do it, when you want to do it, what resources it will take and what the outcomes will be once these actions have been successful.

When integrated into the everyday planning that you normally carry out this simple structure, done right, helps you become flexible in implementation, responsive to specific needs or issues and, importantly, able to more effectively assess and report on the overall progress towards the goals set out in your vision statement.

We’re not going to disguise the fact that the initial development of your digital strategy is both hard work and time consuming. However, where organizations have embraced the process it has also been used as an important element of professional development for staff, awareness raising for parents and integrated into learning activities for students.

This reduces the workload overhead and, importantly, makes the whole process more effective.

Who creates the strategy?

Too often we see senior leaders struggling to create strategic plans that are vast, complex documents with inter-connected elements requiring different strands of their organization to work together.

Rarely do strategy documents created at the top work as effectively as they should. Even when they do, the resulting success is often transient and fails to feed into an overall, long term move towards an agreed vision.

The most successful strategic plans are ones that have been developed from the ground up by those who will have to implement them. So involve everyone in developing these plans and understanding how they will lead to improvements throughout the organization.

Many will actually enjoy the involvement, even if they only contribute to small elements of the overall strategy. Others may not, initially, contribute at all, but may be persuaded in years two or three. Still others will throw themselves whole-heartedly into helping you create something special. You will learn a lot about your organization through this process. Involving everyone

Structured development time 
Aim to timetable specific activities into subject/departmental meetings.

Make sure that they are structured to allow for those staff who teach across different subjects/departments to be be involved in as many as possible.

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VCS Launchpad: Digital Learning Day

Create a Clear timetable 
Give clear guidance as to the timescales for delivery of project/action plans that are the expected outcomes of these subject/department activities. Try not not make the delivery timescales too long, focused effort over a few weeks often leads to better outcomes.

Detail the process Detail the process of how these plans will be evaluated and feedback given. This is important, especially early on. The people creating potential strategic actions need to have as much detail about what is required as possible to help them structure their responses.

Senior leadership team 
When subjects/departments submit their plans use your senior leadership team to filter out ill-formed or unacceptable offerings.

This will be good for your senior leadership as they will need to demonstrate a sound understanding of the expected pathways to achieving your vision. It will also help staff to begin to frame their planning within the overall context of where you want the organization to be in ten years.

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hiTEC Initiative Transforming Education in Chester County School District, SC

Once a short-list of potential actions/projects is decided upon you can now start working with your senior leadership team on agreeing which can be included in the final document.

Once again, the discussions surrounding this list will become a vital part of the professional development for these senior leaders. It will also inform you about how well you have managed to help them understand the strategic direction that you want them to travel.

Final review 
Once you have agreed the final set of proposals you can work through them and make sure that they are written in a way that is acceptable to you.

If you make changes, make sure that you confirm them with the original author and discuss why your changes may be better.

This is another great opportunity for professional development for them and a chance for you to assess their understanding of your vision.

Involve your governing body 
The final strategy document should be presented to the Board of Governors, or your equivalent Governing body, so that they can review your direction of travel and have some input on the priorities that you have set.

In years three and beyond the review of the previous strategy will have been carried out in a governing body meeting prior to the presentation of next year’s strategy. This will enable them to evaluate the strategy document more effectively.

Once your governing body have agreed the strategy then it is all systems go and things can really start to get moving.

Note By leaving the majority of your input to the final phases of the strategy development you are not only creating more time for yourself but also helping your team to develop as professionals and providing you with opportunities to assess how well staff across your organization have understood the vision that has been agreed.

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Elements of your digital strategy

It’s worth spending a little time discussing what each element of an effective strategy entails. What follows is a discussion of some of the core components that should be in each action that is suggested as part of your strategy.

Remember that, as with many new things, it may take you and your staff several iterations, sometimes over a number of years, for the strategy document to arrive at something that you feel is effective for YOUR organization.

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IT Takes A Strategy: Building An Effective ICT Strategic Plan

We have seen many strategic plans, some good and some not so good. 
All the good ones, strategies that actually resulted in moving the organization forwards, had the following elements embedded in each action associated with the strategy.

What is it that you want to do exactly? 
This is probably the simplest to explain and develop. Each department in your organization should submit actions that they wish to carry out, be that purchase of some hardware or software, specific professional development/training or changes in the way that they want to use technology to enable more effective learning and teaching.

Remember, this is a strategy document, so try to keep to actions that will have a major impact or have considerable budget implications.

Changing from version 11 to version 12 of a piece of software might not be needed in the strategy document unless it enables something specific that will have a big impact or is going to cost a lot of money.

Try to encourage accuracy in these statements since this will help when agreed actions are turned into specific project plans.

Why do we want to do it? 
This is certainly one of the most important elements of your strategy. Your colleagues have identified an action that they want to carry out but why do you need to do it?

Most people will answer the ‘Why?’ question with an answer about an immediate need or because they, a colleague or someone they know has seen something being used/done at a conference, on the Internet or in a course.

Lots of expensive technology resources are sold this way. A brightly colored set of demo screens, designed to look easy to use, or a speaker who used something to good effect in their own context can be very persuasive, even to the most hard-nosed professionals.

This section of your strategy is really about understanding how the proposed action is aligned to the overall vision.

How will it move things forward towards the goals set out in the vision and how will it address the priorities that the organization has set for itself in the near future and beyond?

Early on in your developments this is sometimes a hard question to answer, even for someone with experience, and it may take some teasing out and several thought-provoking discussions before this is completed in an acceptable fashion.

Of course, asking this question also leads to many proposals falling by the wayside. When some are analyzed for their impact on addressing key priorities it may be that they fail the test and become redundant.

All this questioning of proposals is great professional development, especially for aspiring leaders, and will help keep those involved focused on the vision and how to achieve it, which often gets lost in the day-to-day priorities with which staff are confronted.

As with the rest of the strategy document you should see the detail within this section improving over time as staff begin to refine what is actually required for success within your context.

What Resources Are Required? 
Resourcing change is one of the more complicated and challenging aspects of the leadership role. Balancing capital expenditure, in-house time and effort and the use of external resources can be a difficult equation.

Even free technology requires some resources to be able to implement it effectively. Services, equipment and software tools that cost money also require extra resources to be allocated in order to make adoption and use as successful as possible.

Whether something is free or costs large amounts of money, technology staff have to implement it within the current infrastructure and need time, a major resource that is often overlooked, to understand any nuances and how to best implement and support it.

Teaching staff have to be trained in the functional use of the technology, given time to explore it and then introduced to how it will be used within the curriculum in order to improve learning.

Once a technology has been adopted and implemented within the curriculum there needs to be resources allocated to assessing its impact, which may involve activities such as observations by senior leadership, reviews of attainment data, feedback from staff and students and discussions in staff meetings.

This in turn may lead to the need for more time to be spent re-aligning its use and hence more time for staff professional development.

All of this needs to be factored in to the very real time pressures that staff and the senior leadership are under right throughout the year.

At the centre of a great deal of this activity will be the technology staff that run your infrastructure and who will be expected to support any technology change that is decided upon. Even for the simplest of technologies this can mean one or more days of effort if it is to be implemented and supported effectively.

So even without any budgetary considerations your strategy may want to structure the required activities to be spread out over the year.

This can be done by asking the simple question

‘When do you need to start using this with students?’

But however you do it you need to plan the timescale to allow for truly effective implementation.

Whilst there are a great deal of ‘free’ resources out there more often than not your technology strategy will include several items that have varying degrees of budgetary impact.

This is where your leadership skills will be needed and where the relative impact on achieving your vision needs to be assessed against specific, immediate priorities.

When to do it 
Once an action has been identified as purposeful and a set of resources mapped and allocated to that action the next stage is to think about when to carry it out.

In some cases, the timing is obvious and crucial, such as implementing a new version of the MIS during a time when the organization is not relying on it so much.

Many will want to do something in the very first weeks of a new term/semester. People will hopefully be keen to ‘get started’ and implement a new project as early as possible.

Project leads rarely see the requirements of other projects when planning their activities and often they will plan in resources, people and time that are also required by other, often equally valid projects.

A free-for-all is in the interests of nobody! 
Teaching staff, who may well be involved with various departments, each of which may have a number of projects will be inundated with activities that need to be carried out above and beyond their ‘normal’ teaching activities; technical support staff will be pulled here and there with requests for technology support and the senior leadership team will have a nightmare trying to assess the success and effectiveness of any one, specific project.

We’ve all been there, ‘initiative-fatigue’ will set in and nothing will be as effective as it could have been. Worse still, you may find that a lowly paid technician is actually choosing which project will succeed, or not, simply because he or she ‘gets on better’ with a specific member of staff.

This is where your leadership qualities come to the fore. You need to make use of your knowledge of your staff, understanding of the organization year and awareness of the capacity of your organization as whole to be able to effectively implement these actions.

Other factors need to be considered, such as external visits, especially if there may be a planned audit of your organizational effectiveness soon, or a specific large event is coming up, such as the birth of your first child/grandchild!

Weigh everything up and decide an effective timescale, starting point, implementation period and review timescale for every project in close consultation with project leads, the technology support team and other members of your senior leadership team.

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Baltimore STAT Program with Intel-Based 2 in 1s: Planning and Implementation

In the end, some projects may need to be put off until the following year. That’s fine. They still remain an important part of your overall strategy and whilst project leads may be disappointed about the delay it does give them more time to plan for success.

Outcomes 
For any action/project in your strategy to have value it must achieve something. That achievement also needs to move you closer to your goals within your vision. Therefore, in order to assess your progress and to evaluate the effectiveness of that action/project you need to have a clear, specific understanding of what it is going to deliver.

Importantly, that understanding of the agreed deliverable must also be shared by all those who are going to deliver it.

Some of the work identifying the deliverable(s) of a project may already have been carried out when you discussed ‘Why’ it was important but that was linked closely to the overall vision. In this section you need to be very clear about specific deliverables that can be reported on during the strategic review at the end of the year.

Staff may find this hard at first and everyone has to learn to try and be as accurate in predicting the outcomes that will be delivered. You will already be used to doing much of this but your staff may not be and you need to help them understand that these are predictions that help everyone understand how well things are moving forward.

Encourage them to be challenging in their expectations, aim high then aim higher again. Safe targets will probably be met but, in the long-term scheme of things, may not move you forward at the pace you need to achieve your goals.

Help everyone to understand that if something fails to deliver one or more outcomes it will be treated as a learning experience and will be used to help future projects improve their chances of success

Above all else be as specific as possible, and then be more specific. We often see outcomes written as:

“Project X will help students engage more effectively with the difficult concept of force”

This is all very laudable but how do you measure it? A much better outcome definition might be:

“Project X will increase the number of correct answers associated with the concept of force by 40% in each of the following two years”

A challenging and measurable deliverable that can be reported on easily and accurately.

Annual Review 
The annual review of your strategy is a key part of achieving your vision. It allows everyone involved to judge progress towards your vision, analyze the cost effectiveness of various projects and explore the overall effectiveness of the use of digital tools across the organization.

As with many of the other elements in your strategy, the first review is usually the hardest to carry out. Moving forward you will find that many elements of the review will be carried out throughout the year but often the first one appears as a large chunk of workload at a busy time.

If you build in reviews throughout the year it will make this less daunting. This first review is important and will set the standard for the future.
Project leads need to be encouraged to be open and honest about the success, or otherwise, of their projects. This is obviously a lot easier if the deliverables were clear and measurable.

Along with the specific deliverables you need to be able to assess how the strategy has moved your organization on towards the goals set out in the vision and this may be more difficult to assess, especially in the first few years of a change programme.

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Summerville High School explain their 1:1 initiative

Once again, this is where a whole-organization approach will bear fruit. As more and more staff, students, parents and other members of your community are affected by the deliverables within your strategy the more they will be encouraged to measure the benefits against the vision that you all created.

This does not happen by ‘magical osmosis’. You have to be extremely explicit about how things that have been achieved within this year are designed to move learning forward and to ask direct questions about whether everyone involved agrees that things are moving forward.

Did ‘Project X’ actually help students in science understand forces more effectively or was there something else that teachers or pupils did that may have been an indirect consequence of ‘Project X’ that caused them to do better in the exams?

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New School — 3 Ways Technology Will Transform the Classroom: Goldman Sachs’ Victor Hu

Make sure you ask hard questions and expect hard answers. Be explicit that there is a no-blame culture and that if something did not work everyone needs to learn why and move forward.

Use the learning from both the successful and less successful projects to inform development of new ones in future years.

Initially, many projects will use examples from other organizations to structure the project. It would be really surprising if the exact structure from another organization, with different organizational drivers and a different context worked perfectly within your organization.

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Broken Arrow Public Schools 1:1 Initiative

So encourage a positive approach to a learning culture where people are happy to share their experiences and learning about what does and does not work within your organization.

This will lead to better planned, better implemented and more successful projects that will take you where you want to go at a much faster pace.

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Digitally-Enabled Sharing

One of the aims of this resource is to share best practice and ideas from around the world in order to enable you to make judgements about their relevance to your organization.

So we hope that at the end of each section of this resource you will feel comfortable sharing some thoughts and ideas with others.

We will collate all the thoughts and ideas shared and present the key ideas, statements and comments, anonymously, for everyone else to see on our web site and in future iterations of this resource.

For this section please share with others:

Share one statement from your digital strategy.

Click on the text aove to share your thoughts.