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The Emergence of the Digital Trustee

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

The changing context that many organisations are facing, as a consequence of COVID-19 and the associated global economic challenges coupled with the growing acceptance of hybrid-based working processes, has led to the emergence of the digital trustee. This has opened the scope for greater engagement from time-poor people who which to make contributions to the third sector. This willingness needs to be mobilised and suitable structures must be created to ensure that a digital trustee is empowered and able to make a positive and sustainable contribution to the relevant organisations. This paper will look at the emergency of digital trustees and asses the opportunities and possible pitfalls within their operational environment.



Introduction


Digital transformation can be interpreted as using technology to change fundamental business processes and models. The World Economic Forum has estimated that digital transformation within many organisations and industries in next 10 years will likely generate more than 100 trillion U.S dollars in new value-creation, economic opportunities, and market resilience (Kristensen, Shafiee, Shafiee, Hvam, 2018). Digital transformation is set to affect all global sectors, including Third Sector Organisations (TSO), and in order to continue operating at the levels of productivity and sustainability that TSO require not only to survive, but to thrive, they need to incorporate digital transformation into their strategic objectives, organisational processes and stakeholder relationships.


Third sector organisations (TSOs) are said to include social enterprises, volunteer groups, charities, community associations, faith organisations and other non-profit organisations (Jones, 2021, p. 3). During the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers revealed that an income drop across the third sector was expected to involve billions of pounds. Regardless of this income reduction shortage of on-sight labour force available during the pandemic, TSOs experienced an increased demand for their services, with “63% reporting higher levels of demand” as opposed to the year before (Jones, 2021, p. 3).


Digital transformation has been described by Kristensen, Shafiee, Shafiee, & Hvam, (2018) as "using technology to change strategy, revenue streams, operations and business models leading to significant impact" for consumers, partners and staff (p.1) and that notwithstanding the information and communication technology (ICT) systems and infrastructure utilised, digital transformation substantially affects three fundamental areas of an organisational systems, namely customer experience, operational processes and business models.


The changing context that many organisations are facing as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated global economic challenges coupled with the growing acceptance of hybrid-based working processes, has led to the emergence of the digital trustee.


As a trustee is an executive professional who has power vested to contribute to strategic decision-making, they can be defined as "a natural or legal person to whom property is legally committed to be administered for the benefit of a beneficiary (such as a person or a charitable organisation) and includes the characteristic that they are "one… occupying a position of trust" (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).


Thus, it can be assumed that such a person with a digital designation would naturally be given executive purview over all ICT systems, infrastructure, policies and their implementation within an organisation and to ensure that such ICTs and their implementation provides a material benefit to the organisation and relevant stakeholders.


The recent emergence of the digital trustee has broadened the scope for greater engagement from time-poor people who wish to make contributions to the third sector, whether these people be the internal stakeholders of TSO staff and partners, or the external stakeholders of donors, funders or end-users and consumers of TSO products and/or services.


This expressed willingness to contribute to TSOs needs to be mobilised and supported with suitable ICT systems, infrastructure and policies, as well as fostered by an appropriate organisational culture in such a way that a digital trustee is empowered to make a positive and sustainable contribution to their organisation and their relevant TSO stakeholders.


ICT Utilisation and Implementation in TSOs


Many studies have explained how information and communication technologies (ICT) provide opportunities for TSOs to fill the gaps in capacity of financial and human resources, as well as to maximise social impact. While it has been argued that a lack of resources may inhibit the likelihood of TSOs’ ICT adoption and that TSOs may feel obligated to implement ICTs due to external institutional pressures, these factors do not fully explain how and why TSOs use (or do not use) ICTs (Ihm & Kim, 2021).


Extensive research has been done in order to determine whether it is necessary for ICTs to be implemented by TSOs so that they can better facilitate organisational operations and accomplish their strategic objectives, and has consequently found that TSOs’ websites, blogs, and social media provide efficient and effective means to reach a wide audience and have two-way engagement with current and potential end-users or consumers (Ihm & Kim, 2021). However, it has been found that the overuse of data analytics used to measure audience engagement through social network channels may lead to the marginalisation and depersonalisation of the end-users or consumers of TSO deliverables (Kristensen, Shafiee, Shafiee, Hvam, 2018).


Studies have suggested that ICT uses for TSO’s internal stakeholder collaboration are critical for a number of reasons. Firstly, ICTs make collaboration among internal stakeholders more efficient and improves general organisational productivity. For example, studies have shown that “employee drives, intranets, or teleconferencing infrastructure” (Ihm & Kim, 2021, p.3) may support internal cooperation and knowledge exchange. This is particularly relevant for small staff groups, whose members may have differing roles and work schedules (Ihm & Kim, 2021). In addition, social media may also enable more effective relationship management with internal stakeholders, such as virtual volunteers, remote employees and TSO partners. In addition, social media employment may enable TSOs to engage with their internal stakeholders such as employee and project partners more productively in their effort to achieve strategic objectives in a more sustainable manner (Ihm & Kim, 2021, p. 3).


From the productivity standpoint, studies have suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic would have led to a decrease in labour productivity, unless quick and strategic organisational changes were made with regard to policies and operations (Kamal, 2020). Indeed, when the relevant utilisation and implementation of digital technologies is structured into a cohesive framework at the strategic level, that is, by a digital trustee, organisational productivity may improve and a new competitive advantage may be achieved.


Studies have defined productivity as being largely concerned with "systems" and the "system's environment" which motivate organisational beliefs around productivity and how it is measured (Kamal, 2020, p. 311). The COVID-19 pandemic has surely tested the robustness of TSOs’ operational systems with respect to their sustainability and ability to continue their productivity under duress without decreasing.


Moreover, a recent study which highlighted productivity levels affected by remote working found that the remote working induced by the COVID-19 pandemic actually led to a 28% increase in labour productivity as opposed to in-house labour (Kamal, 2020, p. 312). This is just one illustration of how COVID-19 has caused fundamental changes in organisational structures and how these changes have included some form of digitalisation transformation.


Secondly, assorted types of digital communication are appropriate for different organisational objectives and audience groups. For example, TSOs may use social media for internally among its employees who are operating by remote or hybrid (remote and in-house) work, but they may also use social media for external communication in its advocacy and promoting pilot projects. When social media is used to reach an external audience, it may lead to wider social impact, but when social media within the internal organisational environment, it may lead to increased task coordination and improved organisational productivity (Ihm & Kim, 2021).


Indeed, views in research have reiterated that the availability of TSO resources, or lack thereof, is the determining factor of ICT adoption or not and that a lack of digital skills among executive personnel prevents TSOs from designating a person to the professional role of overseeing the organisation's ICT infrastructure and policies (Kristensen, Shafiee, Shafiee, Hvam, 2018) which would include functions within the purview of a digital trustee. Moreover, studies emphasise that an organisational culture, which is fostered by executive management and which drives effective organisational ICT implementation, is essential for successful digital transformation within a TSO.


In contrast to needing sufficient financial resources, it is well known that ICTs such as social media have a relatively low cost of employment while being simultaneously effective in reaching a wide audience when compared with more fixed and physically structured ICT systems. Moreover, research has found that organisational resources are negatively correlated to ICT implementation, as illustrated by the fact that TSOs with fewer financial resources have been found more likely to implement social media systems and usage (Ihm & Kim, 2021).


Extant research also argues that TSOs might choose to implement ICT infrastructure and systems so that they may appear be efficient and effective when compared with other TSOs of similar structure and nature, thereby enhancing their reputation. Whether these external pressures are present or not, different TSOs may vary how they employ ICT based on how it will enable those organisations to reach their strategic objectives.


One of these objectives, which plays a major role in organisational efficiency, is effective communication systems and strategies. The different utilisation of ICT for both external and internal communication is largely determined by the value that TSOs place on ICT systems, as well as the values of the organisations themselves. It is highly likely that TSOs will base their ICT adoption on their organisational culture (Kristensen, Shafiee, Shafiee, Hvam, 2018).


Influences of Organisational Culture on ICT utilisation and Implementation


Organisational culture, as described by Ihm & Kim (2021), can be defined as the "the specific norms, values, assumptions, and social structures that shape members' beliefs and behaviours within these organisations" (p. 4) . Indeed, the organisational culture of different TSOs may determine in which capacities they employ ICT systems and how they implement their infrastructures with respect to internal or external communication. Ihm & Kim (2021) further defined organisational culture as having two sub-divisions, one being 'cultural values' and the other, 'communication practice' (p. 5). Cultural values have been seen to comprise of critical values and objectives that employees place on the performance of the organisation and as what they hold to as being good practice.


Studies have shown that organisations whose culture values "flexibility, innovation, and creativity" are more likely to use ICTs more intentionally and with greater proliferation than others due to their emphasis on entrepreneurial activity and future-visioning (Ihm & Kim, 2021, p. 5) and that ICTs were more likely to be used for collaboration, communication and knowledge management. In addition, cultures which were against a non-hierarchical organisational structure, enabled their ICT database management systems to be used for knowledge sharing and collaborative designing.


Interestingly, organisational values from internal cultures which are more authoritarian in nature are also more likely to utilise ICTs with greater scope and frequency than others because of the fact that internal stakeholders do not question ICT implementation. On the other hand, research has shown that non-authoritarian organisational cultures more widely adopt ICT communication strategies due to the fact that internal stakeholders (e.g., employees and partners) felt that they had the provision to share their thoughts and recommendations for ICT utilisation, regardless of their organisational role.


Moreover, an example of an empirical study done on a management consulting organisation whose culture valued competitiveness and information as a professional power, showed that such organisations demonstrated an inactive use of ICTs.


Furthermore, it has been suggested that active communication may not only support efficient and effective internal communication, but also support improved communication with external stakeholders in instances such as disseminating financial reports, promotion and advocacy to NPO clients, and collaboration with potential or existing partners.


Sustainable Partnerships and thus, Contributions to TSOs


The 17th and last of the Sustainable Development Goals instituted by the United Nation’s Sustainable for 2030 is to "strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development". Research has shown that global partnerships support the institutional and organisational infrastructure required to facilitate the changes needed to achieve multiple SDGs simultaneously (Trittin-Ulbrich, Scherer, Munro, & Whelan, 2021).


Indeed, these changes mean that multi-stakeholder partnerships are needed to deploy and share "financial resources, knowledge, technology, and expertise" and that effective collaboration between the public, private and third sector, whether it be between homogenous or heterogenous organisations, are critical to mutual value creation (Kassem, Bagadeem, Alotaibi, & Aljuaid, 2021, p. 2).


Furthermore, it has been documented that TSOs are essential to providing solutions to sustainable development issues as are they generally closer in proximity to impacts of societal, communal, economic and environmental problems. In addition, studies have shown that TSOs play a strategic role in effectively mediating between private entities, public institutions and societal concerns. It is thus crucial that the relationships and networks between TSOs, their partners and external stakeholders are effectively and efficiently managed and supported through appropriate practical and theoretical structures in order to foster sustainability (Kassem, Bagadeem, Alotaibi, & Aljuaid, 2021).


A partnership can be described as a flexible relationship among various stakeholders which is founded on a mutual interest in an organisational project and which encourages an exchange of compatible resources and the creation of value. A partnership should reflect input from both parties and should allow for an appropriate balance of independence and synergy, while fostering inclusive collaboration and open communication with respect to decision-making, mutual transparency and discretion." (Kassem, Bagadeem, Alotaibi, & Aljuaid, 2021, p. 2).


Research has further shown that in order to foster a successful collaborative culture and cooperative processes, an effective governance structure, agreed to by all relevant stakeholders must be formulated and established.


Kassem, Bagadeem, Alotaibi & Aljuaid (2021) have defined a governing agreement for a partnership as "one of more institutions [which] are directly engaged in a collective decision-making process that is formal, [intentional], and consensus-oriented that aims to manage specific programs, assets, or services [in order] to achieve a common goal” (p. 3).


In this context, a collaborative governance structure should promote the two-way nature of a partnership and demonstrate the adherence of both parties to the partnership's principles, that is, its common vision, objectives, communication processes, end-user or consumer involvement, accountability, transparency, and equity and quality values.


Subsequently, it is essential to review and evaluate the complete life-cycle of a partnership agreement when implementing such a collaborative governance structure to ensure that all inter- or intra entity issues or discrepancies are addressed and dealt with, and thereby support an effective partnership which has the capacity to continue in sustainable manner.


Conclusion


Digital usage and implementation have become ubiquitous throughout organisational operations globally, and with the ever-increasing prevalence of ICT systems and implementation in business models, customer management and stakeholder relationships, it has become essential for industries to adopt digital transformation in some capacity in order to continue their operations in a sustainable manner.


Indeed, with TSOs being essential to providing solutions to sustainable development issues and creating co-value services and/or products to their end-users or customers in partnership with TSOs' internal stakeholders, it is crucial that digital transformation and thus, ICT usage and implementation is strategically managed by an executive staff member, such as a digital trustee, by whom an organisational culture conducive to ICT implementation, is be fostered and with whom collaborative governance structures for ICT usage among internal stakeholders should be formulated.


Websites, blogs, and social media provide efficient and effective avenues to reach a wide audience of TSOs, as well as facilitate two-way engagement with current and potential end-users or consumers. Due to enabling effective relationship management with internal stakeholders and their relatively low usage cost, social media may additionally support TSOs in achieving organisational strategic objectives in a more sustainable manner.


ICTs make internal collaboration processes efficient and improve general organisational performance, and employee drives, intranets, or teleconferencing infrastructure may support internal coordination and knowledge exchange.


The different utilisation of ICT for both external and internal communication is largely determined by the organisational culture of TSOs. The organisational culture which values "flexibility, innovation, and creativity" is conducive to a more intentional and prolific use of ICTs than others due to their emphasis on entrepreneurial activity and future-visioning. In addition, cultures which are against a non-hierarchical organisational structure may enable their ICT database management systems to be used for knowledge sharing and collaborative designing.


In order to foster a successful collaborative culture and cooperative processes, an effective governance structure, agreed to by all relevant stakeholders must be formulated and established and should promote the two-way nature of a partnership, as well as demonstrate the adherence of both parties to the partnership's principles, that is, its common vision, objectives, communication processes, end-user or consumer involvement, accountability, transparency, and equity and quality values. Subsequently, reviewing and evaluate the complete life-cycle of a partnership agreement is essential to ensure that all inter- or intra entity issues or discrepancies are addressed and dealt with, and thereby support an effective partnership which has the capacity to continue in sustainable manner.


Limitations


This paper in no way addresses all factors which lead to ICT usage, implementation and effectiveness in TSOs, nor are its claims for which organisational cultures are conducive for ICT uptake, or factors for TSO sustainability, exhaustive. Being a light, explanatory paper which reviews some extant literature on ICT utilisation in TSOs, it merely provides a general overview of some factors which have been empirically researched and substantiated for increasing and hindering ICT usage, implementation and effectiveness in TSOs.


References


Ihm, J. & Kim, E. M. (2021). When Nonprofit Organizations Meet Information and Communication Technologies: How Organizational Culture Influences the Use of Traditional, Digital, and Sharing Media. International Society for Third-Sector Research, 32(9), 1-17, Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349740311

Jones, C. (2021). The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Third Sector and Carers in the UK. International Journal of Care and Caring, 5(3), 529-534. Available at https://doi.org/10.1332/239788221X16171137895838

Kamal, M. M. (2020). The triple-edged sword of COVID-19: understanding the use of digital technologies and the impact of productive, disruptive, and destructive nature of the pandemic. Information Systems Management, 37(4), 310-317. Available at https://doi.org/10.1080/10580530.2020.1820634

Kassem, H. S, Bagadeem, S., Alotaibi, B. H., & Aljuaid, M. (2021). Are Partnerships in Nonprofit Organizations Being Governed for Sustainability? A Partnering Life Cycle Assessment. PLoS ONE, 16(3): e0249228. Available at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249228

Kristensen, S. S., Shafiee, S., Shafiee, M. & Hvam, L. (2018). Challenges of Digital Transformation: The case of the Non-Profit Sector. Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328804378

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Trustee. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trustee

Trittin-Ulbrich, H., Scherer, A. G., Munro, I., Whelan, G. (2021). Exploring the Dark and Unexpected Sides of Digitalization: Toward a Critical Agenda. Organization, 28(1), 8–25, Available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1350508420968184


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