Case study: Leading the Sector, Suffolk Wildlife Trust

This case study is part of a set of resources from Developing digitally literate leadership in heritage organisations.

About the participant:

Name: Christine Luxton

Role: Chief Executive

Organisation: Suffolk Wildlife Trust

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What did you want to find out or achieve as you tried things out? | What did you do? | What was difficult? | What surprised you? And/or was new? | What’s next? | What 3 quick takeaways would you give other heritage leaders? | Has thinking about and developing your own digitally literate leadership changed your overall leadership style? | Covid-19 gave the heritage sector’s digital transformation a kickstart – how do heritage leaders build on that? | Any further reflections around digital leadership that you’d like to add?

What did you want to find out or achieve as you tried things out?

We are a multi-site nature conservation charity, with staff working from offices at some of our larger nature reserves around the county, plus a larger county office base. These fabulous nature reserves are the focus of our work, but their rural locations have meant recurring frustrations with digital activity from poor rural Broadband connections. Whilst we have maintained good investment in our systems, they have grown organically around a server-based system centred on our county office base, which compounded connection issues for site-based staff. 

Improvements to the Broadband service to our nature reserve offices, coupled with ongoing investment in smart phones for all site-based staff to enable more mobile working, created the opportunity for us to consider moving the organisation to a cloud-based SharePoint and Teams system. This was the focus for my experiment. 

Our staff, as a whole, are digitally literate, with individuals also having advanced and specialist skills to fulfil their roles, including mapping software, CRM database, accountancy packages, website management and digital marketing. We could be confident therefore of the competency of the staff to move to a new way of working, the challenge was finding a compelling driver, given everyone’s existing workloads, for deciding WHEN to do it.

This was the point that COVID-19 hit and the Leading the Sector course began. Staff moved within days to home working and the whole organisation was then working within the confines of the server-based system. It was clear that our WHEN was now.

What did you do?

With the move to SharePoint and Teams as the focus for my experiment, my starting point was finding the organisational ‘key’, the WHY that would secure all-staff buy-in. We identified the common areas of daily activity that everyone would benefit from and therefore see the reason for change – shared files that everyone had in common, shared frustrations, and easy wins. There were two key areas were Health & Safety and HR as well as the shared departmental files that reflect the organisational structure. We were fully confident in our Health & Safety processes, but with most staff working outdoors and away from their office base, the case for a move to a cloud-based system which everyone could easily access from their mobile phones was compelling, coupled with the scope for time-saving innovations such as interactive forms for point of work risk assessments. It was obvious Health & Safety should be our WHY in discussions with staff to explain, explore and plan our move to SharePoint & Teams. In the event, the remote working imposed by COVID-19 made the benefits self-evident and Health & Safety became an illustrative vehicle of change rather than the persuasive key I initially envisaged – although I do think it would have been effective.

With the WHEN & WHY established, the real challenge was HOW. Having previously failed to recruit an IT Manager, our IT systems were only supported by an external provider and the scale of change needed an internal lead. The plan for organisational change which the experiment had created and the understanding of the resilience this would give enabled us to secure grant funding of £50k from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for this staff lead and for the investment in mobile tech (phones and laptops) and staff training to fully implement it.

Critically, the insight from ‘Leading the Sector’ led us to advertise for an IT & Digital Skills Manager, which attracted a strong field of candidates who were motivated by enabling and supporting colleagues, and how the tech could help us fulfil our mission, rather than tech per se. Embedding digital skills into the organisation in this way was perhaps the most impactful decision of my experiment and a significant legacy of the course. With our brilliant new IT & Digital Skills manager in post, we now have the capacity and leadership to take the project forwards with confidence and remove the fear of ‘what if something goes wrong’.

We are now in the throes of the delivery phase. All staff have been trained and the first Team have gone live. Over the next four months the whole organisation will transition onto the new system and be able to work as a fully connected countywide team – and also embrace new blended ways of home and office working.

What was difficult?

Once the organisational benefits of the move to SharePoint and Teams were clear, the temptation was to get there as quickly as possible. Holding our nerve, whilst we invested time in planning, equipment and staff training, and then pacing the roll-out has needed discipline. It would have been easy to let the driver of COVID imposed home-working push us into moving before we were ready.

What surprised you? And/or was new?

How fearless we’ve been! Perhaps driven by the home-working experience and challenges of COVID-19, we’ve never doubted the direction we needed to move in.

What’s next?

Teams will become the primary tool for internal communication and file sharing, enabling staff to regain control of overloaded email inboxes and foster new ways of collaborative working. Once staff are established, we will bring the Trustees on board, improving access to policies and Board papers. 

As we unfurl from COVID-19 restrictions, the move to Teams & SharePoint will enable us to establish new ways of blended working, balancing home and office and continuing the use of video calls to facilitate effective cross-county activity.

What 3 quick takeaways would you give other heritage leaders?

  • Give yourself (and the organisation) more time than you think you’ll need 
  • Don’t get lost in the detail – keep returning to the big picture and the WHY 
  • Harness the enthusiasm of early adopters to champion the project and build momentum

Has thinking about and developing your own digitally literate leadership changed your overall leadership style? If so, how? And… Has it changed the way you view your organisation’s mission or objectives?

Our charitable purpose is ‘Enabling everyone to play their part in restoring Suffolk’s wildlife and wild places’. Over the course of the project, the role of digital as an enabler of engagement has come to the fore. Digital is now central to scaling up our delivery to reach beyond our existing audiences and enabling everyone to be agents of change. 

My own leadership role changed during the project, with my appointment as CEO and so the course naturally fed into my growth into this role. Enhanced by leading through the pandemic, user-centred thinking and fostering a learning culture have become increasingly part of the way I strive to lead.

Covid-19 gave the heritage sector’s digital transformation a kickstart – how do heritage leaders build on that? And…Has your experience during the pandemic changed the way you prioritise digital transformation? And… Where are the main challenges and opportunities for digital leadership and transformation in heritage arising from the Covid kickstart?

Our experience has very much been shaped by the pandemic and the organisational move to SharePoint and Teams we are currently working through. There is no doubt we have been bolder in this move than we would have been pre-pandemic and having already thrown previous work patterns ‘to the wind’, staff are more open-minded and ready to adapt and change. 

The challenge for us is to ensure the change in systems is not the end in itself, but a driver for continued growth and that through the communication and collaboration it enables, we embed a ‘think big, act small’ culture of learning and development into the way we work. 

We have been fortunate to secure grant investment in our digital transformation, as we move on from Covid-19, prioritising continued investment will be vital to sustaining the covid kickstart – and to use this kickstart to address other priorities not least changing work patterns and behaviours to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.

Any further reflections around digital leadership that you’d like to add?

Only to thank you for such a thought provoking and wide-ranging programme. Our digital journey is just beginning and is bolder and more confident as a result.

*This case study was created as part of ‘Leading the Sector’ , a professional development course in Digital Leadership for a cohort of 16 leaders from medium-to-large heritage organisations across the UK. The course was part of The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Digital Skills for Heritage and ran from April 2020 to May 2021. Project partners were Golant Innovation/The Audience Agency and specialist advisors were Professor Ross Parry, University of Leicester and Dr Nick Winterbotham.

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence. Please attribute as “Case Study: Leading the Sector, Suffolk Wildlife Trust (2021) by Culture24 and Christine Luxton, Suffolk Wildlife Trust supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0