Transforming the Union Movement

Chromatrope recently attended the Unions21 conference. It was a really interesting day of conversation and planning for how the union movement can better digitally transform to adapt to the changing needs of workers. There are some great initiatives out there, and lots of committed people making positive change, but there are two big existential challenges. The first is in making the union movement a more compelling proposition to the huge numbers of workers whose own ways of working have forever changed and who are already living the ‘future of work’. The second is to ensure that unions adapt to attract new young members, and represent their needs, with the stark fact that for union membership to remain stable, we need to be recruiting double the numbers of people that we are now.

Innovation and digital transformation have a key role to play in both of these challenges. We were very impressed with the work of the TUC digital team, and their megaphone, digital first campaigning platform that Anthony Hayes presented. Dean Rogers of NAPO also talked inspiringly about the ‘typology of (organisational) resistance’ and the PRIDE principles (positive-relevant-inclusive-demanding-ethical) that have underpinned their work. We put a few notes together on some of the big themes from our point of view.

Technology Confidence - The union movement needs to be more confident about what it wants and needs from digital. The trick as ever is to align the strategic needs of the sector together with the individual unions, and most importantly the members that they have already, and the prospective members that they want. Part of the solution to this lies in a the growth of a sector-wide confidence in being sure about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and what it will look like when we get it right.

Narrative, Representation and Language - For a transformed digital-first sector to thrive, members and prospective members need to see people like themselves having successful outcomes from their engagement with unions. There’s clearly an opportunity for using narrative here, to tell the right stories, in the right way in the places and on the platforms where our members and future members are already present. Similarly our strategic communications need to adapt the language that we use to show a level of authenticity and maturity when it comes to how we are transforming union’s digital offers to members.

Strategic Communications - There has already been an encouraging movement towards the creation of principles within unions under which this change can take place. These should be consensual, concise, and clear and, can act as an open and public statement of intent, as well as a framework for everything from guidelines to commissioning to the language that we use when engaging with our members. There’s an opportunity across the movement to share and align these principles, to make strategic communications of all types work much harder for our movement.

Social Not Capital - The union movement has an opportunity to present some powerful alternatives within society to the increasingly mono-cultural offer of the surveillance capitalist FAANG corporations. Rather than asking how we can ‘be more like Google’, we should actually be doing everything we can to present credible and sustainable alternatives. This instinct should ethically and practically permeate from everything we do; from the choice of who we choose to strategically partner with, to the shape and purpose of the technology we use and the services and products we create.

Research Led and Test Driven - Agile ways of working, that are founded on the evidence of qualitative and quantitive data, are proven in many other sectors. The movement has to move quickly and boldly to show the value of this iterative approach. The path of least resistance to change, is almost certainly by creating quick, small but perfectly formed wins, and then telling everyone from senior leadership to prospective members, how we’ve done it, how they can do it and why we should be doing more.

The Right Technology - There’s no such thing as ‘bad’ technology, just technology used badly. The movement has an opportunity to refresh its offer from a baseline by insisting that the technology companies, platforms, products, services and code that we use is open, modern and founded upon ethically robust principles. It’s no longer good enough to simply renew software licences for expensive products that tie us into useless SLA’s and which provide badly imagined and realised digital experiences for our users. There are alternatives, and its down to the union movement to insist that members get the best value for money and digital experiences that they deserve.

Coaching, Training and Development - The technology transformation landscape is complex, and our organisations and individuals need help in understanding the value of these approaches. There’s nothing wrong with needing help, and there are many socially oriented companies and businesses that can help. Framing the need for this personal and organisation development within a framework of development rather than blame is essential, to ensure that the movement is invested in the need for positive outcomes. This is a process that can’t be done to people, and instead has to rely on shared objectives, and the need for us all to adapt our ways of working for the benefit of the movement and the members.

Sharing Data Matters - We all know that we can make data work a lot harder and as a movement, and with shared aims, we should be able to share our data better. The specification for a shared data platform across unions, has been hampered by the ways that data is currently collected, improved and used. Many unions are using legacy technology products, that are designed to lock their user’s data into proprietary systems. The movement has an opportunity to think and act now to determine how we make data work better, and specify and build the system that we need.