Smart Money: A Response
By Miriam Brosseau, Lisa Colton and Michael Hoffman
The Jim Joseph Foundation’s and William Davidson Foundation’s recent release of Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy was important and instructive on a number of levels. At See3 Communications and Darim Online, we stress the value of transparency and knowledge-sharing in the digital age with our partners and clients, and this report was an impressive example of both.
Upon review of the document, we found a number of key learnings that resonate with the work we do in digital communications strategy, and a few places where we would like to share an additional layer of consideration based on our own experience and research.
Whether educational technology or digital communications, we’ve found that there are certain principles that set up any organization for success in the digital age. Below are examples of just a few of those principles as they were demonstrated in the report, followed by our own reflections.
1. Moving from focus on “tech” to a focus on “content” – and from “content” to “connection.”
In section one, “Basic Principles and Limitations of Ed Tech,” the final limitation is listed as “Misplaced focus on the ‘tech’ and not the ‘material/content.’”
Snapchat! Musical.ly! Whisper! Vine! (Wait, what happened to Vine all of a sudden…?)
It’s so easy to get caught in what’s often referred to as “shiny object syndrome”; that awe and excitement (and, let’s be honest, anxiety) that we feel as new apps and technology come flooding onto the market, and our instinct to jump on board . On the one hand, taking a na’aseh v’nishmah (“we will do and then we will understand”) approach to these tools is an excellent experimental mindset. At the same time, it’s risky – and potentially wasteful – to be invested in the latest technology when it’s not the right tool for our audiences, or lacks a robust strategy or necessary support to bring it to life.
We heartily agree that shifting from a focus on tech to a focus on content is a necessary step. In our experience, there’s one more degree to consider from there. We must also avoid what Bharat Anand of Harvard Business School refers to as “the content trap.” This is the faulty premise that simply creating great content is what draws people to us. But the key is not just content, rather connected content.
Consider the big, traditional media companies, now flailing in the new digital environment. Was it blogs or citizen journalism or online zines that killed them? No; it was Craigslist. Anand makes the argument that much of a newspaper’s revenue, for instance, came from placing classified ads. Once those same ads could be posted for free through Craigslist and other services, the newspapers couldn’t support themselves. Classifieds are, by definition, connected content. The problem wasn’t so much that anyone lost interest in the reporting; that content was still valuable. Instead, it was the content that bred connection that newspapers lost.
Or take the much-discussed Ice Bucket Challenge. The activity itself was quirky and fun; arguably great online content as-is. But it was the built-in connectivity, the call to “challenge” three other friends to complete the same mission that made that campaign valuable and ultimately brought in millions of dollars for ALS research.
Focusing on great content is key to quality education; and to be sure, Jewish educators are operating on a smaller scale than either traditional media companies or the Ice Bucket Challenge. But the message remains the same: the value of digital media is in its connectivity, not just the content itself (nor the information, nor the institution). Interfaith Family, for instance, recognized this when it shifted from being an online encyclopedia to a community-building resource. Building relationships is core to who Jews are as a people, and it’s increasingly important to exemplify that online. We must develop a deep understanding of how our content breeds connection and focus as much, if not more effort there as in its core design.
2. Prioritizing engagement.
In the second half of section one, “Mission Goals,” the report states: “We cannot teach those we cannot reach. The vast majority of Jewish children and young adults remain outside the tent of Jewish communal living and learning, but there is a unique opportunity to reach this audience digitally. Allocate 40 percent of the funds the Foundations want to invest in Ed Tech in Engagement strategies and projects to attract new audiences, raise awareness, stimulate identity, and provide gateway opportunities for deep learning especially to those outside the formal educational framework.”
We wholeheartedly agree that a significant portion of the community’s efforts in digital technology should be geared towards building relationships and engaging with Jews online. That engagement, we have learned, must begin with listening.
If there is one thing we’ve seen over and over as digital communications strategists across a variety of organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, it is a kind of “broadcast impulse.” This is organizations operating from the assumption that because social technologies provide seemingly easy access to an enormous slice of the population (Facebook alone commands a regular user base of over a billion people), that we must therefore use that technology to talk to (or, rather, at) as many people as possible. This mindset grates against the very foundations of social technologies. We cannot simply operate under the assumption that if more people knew about us and our services, that we would increase our enrollment, etc.
A “social mindset,” on the other hand, sets organizations up for success. A social mindset means remembering there is a single human being on the other side of the screen, a person with a whole complicated collection of needs and expectations that have nothing to do with your organization or program. Our use of technology needs to reflect this basic humanity. MazelTogether, formerly Mazeltot.org, recognized this beautifully in its shift from collecting and sharing events to fostering community organizers and hosts. Their new language and website are clear reflections of those priorities.
If we look at the technologies on the rise today – voice command, virtual and augmented reality, chat bots, etc. – we see that they are essentially trying to mimic human conversation. Our technology is catching up with humanity. So, perhaps paradoxically, in order to succeed in the new digital landscape, we need to be *more* human, more relationship-focused. The central call of Judaism is “shema” – listen. Before shouting our message to potential constituents, we must take time to listen, empathize, and interact. In this way, we gather stories to reflect back into the community. We learn with and from one another, and can infuse that human quotient more deeply into our content. Then when we do share our messages, they authentically demonstrate the overlap between our goals and those our constituents have for themselves.
3. Ed Tech, and any digital endeavor, deserves its own focus within (and across) an organization.
Section two of the report shares structural recommendations for supporting Ed Tech, including hiring a dedicated staff person and engaging a board of advisors specific to this area.
There is no doubt that having a staff person with educational technology expertise will raise the capacity of a Jewish foundation to undertake and understand this work. A board of advisors with a variety of skillsets in this realm is critical, and an asset to any ed tech endeavor. What we have noticed through our work is that the organizations who are best positioned to succeed in the digital age take an additional step: they use the lens, and the principles, of digital, to align the entire organization. This principle applies to foundations interested in investing in this issue as much as it does to those in whom they are investing.
While technology was once viewed as a specific tool, today it’s so deeply integrated into everything we do, it’s more analogous to a nervous system. Our nervous systems include structures (brain, spinal cord, nerves) and internal coordination (messages) to make the whole system work. Further, there are voluntary (explicit, planned) elements to the system, and involuntary (day-to-day operations, culture, “the way we do things”) elements. The most successful organizations recognize the deep and powerful impact that a well developed nervous system has on everything that they do. That means aligning goals with processes, systems, work flow, skills and capacity. We agree that sophisticated staff and advisory boards are a critical component of a healthy nervous system. And, we want to add that especially for organizations that have grown up prior to the digital age, they will need to dedicate attention to aligning all aspects of their work to more effectively take advantage of the opportunities available through the use of technology.
Technologies from SMART Boards and iPads to Twitter and Kahoot! have revolutionized education and opened up a world of possibilities for educators and students alike. As Jewish foundations and organizations consider the potential here for their own work, we urge you to remember that every tool or technology carries culture. (Consider how the culture of an office changes – however slightly – when a Keurig is introduced over a traditional coffee pot. A Keurig may end the blame games over who is responsible for cleaning the darn thing, but it may simultaneously end the early morning meet-and-greets around the freshly brewed pot and stifle the social capital built there.) Shifting technology shifts culture, and we must be attuned to those shifts if we are to maximize the potential in front of us. Taking time to deeply consider connectivity, listen to our audiences, and align our people and processes around the principles of digital will help set our organizations up for Ed Tech success.
See3 is a digital strategy consulting agency dedicated to equipping and empowering courageous do-gooders to make the most impact for their cause. Our approach to digital communications prioritizes strategy over tactics, and engages tools such as video and web development in service of that broader strategy for maximum impact. We know good digital strategy starts on the inside, so See3 draws on principles from positive psychology and incorporates organizational alignment to set up the whole organization for lasting success.
Michael Hoffman is CEO of See3. Miriam Brosseau is Director of Engagement. Lisa Colton is Chief Learning Officer, and Founder and President of Darim Online.