Poster of the Digital Lab design principles displayed in office.

Design principles for a new union CRM project

When we set up the TUC Digital Lab, the first thing we did was to work with unions to devise a set of 8 digital design principles to help inform our work. They’ve stood up pretty well over the years and been useful to us on many occasions in steering the choices we make in what we do.

The principles can be a useful lens to view projects through. And with so many unions currently embarking on CRM change projects, I thought it might be good to revisit them in the context of CRM change, to see how each one might inform a new project.

1) Be driven by data

There are many strands to this design principle, but as CRMs are ultimately all about data, there’s a lot to think about here.

That includes planning how you will build it to collect and categorise the right data, rather than being tempted to add in as much as possible. Cleaning data before the move and finding ways to make it easier for users to update (not just easier for the union to run) will help the project run more smoothly as it beds in.

Allowing the right levels of access to data will be important, especially working out how the same data used by your membership team might be shared appropriately and safely with reps, as they need it. And thinking about how you will use this data to report to managers at all levels with the information they need to evaluate how the union is performing.

2) Commit realistic resources

Planning the project thoroughly up front and establishing a common understanding of the implications across stakeholders will help avoid many pitfalls. For example, it could be tempting to choose a system with lower set up costs but complicated licensing on seats, tools and usage rates. But when you come to expand the project, you may find that license costs balloon unsustainably as more people come on board or you add functionality.

Unions will most likely need to hire in external expertise to support them in these changes – most unions aren’t large enough to have specialist staff who can cover all aspects of the project. It’s important though to work out how you will use that external involvement to build internal skills, so the CRM team will be better able to support and build on the system once it’s delivered and the consultants have left.

As much as it will need staff and resource to launch a new system, you also need to consider what will be needed to get it successfully adopted by the staff and activists who will interact with it. That means allocating resource to communications and training on a longer term basis than just the immediate project timeline.

3) Start with user needs and keep them involved

As more processes around the union digitise and connect together, more and more staff and activists will need to engage with the union’s systems. Involve as many stakeholders as deeply possible in advance to get their perspectives understood. There is no way even the best project manager can hope to understand how all the union’s processes work on a day to day basis. Working with them to map out processes and user needs will be invaluable in establishing a set of clear requirements that suppliers can their most accurate pitches against.

And involvement should continue throughout. From inside the project it’s easier to see how things are playing out as it progresses. But for those whose work will be affected, it’s important to continue engagement and consultation, to give them confidence that the new system will take them and their needs into account.

Understanding stakeholders’ needs in how they do their jobs will help the project and implementation go much more smoothly. People are more likely to be convinced of the benefits of change if you can lead with how the new way will benefit their current role and remove pain points you know they are experiencing.

4) Take small steps and learn as you go

A CRM project is a huge and complex undertaking, and the union will likely discover a lot about the opportunities and challenges as the project progresses. Trying for a “big bang” project that launches a whole set of new functionality at once can risk unforeseen problems and delays.

Some unions are reflecting this by running the project in phases. One approach is to start by working towards a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that covers just the basics of what you need in a system, and then adding more powerful tools in subsequent projects, adjusting course as you go.

The MoSCoW framework is a good way to evaluate this – planning out what the project Must have, Should have, Could have in later phases and Won’t have for the forseeable. It can help plan dependencies so you can break a huge project into more manageable increments.

5) Understand the problem before creating solutions

Getting a shared understanding is crucial. Otherwise you may end up building something that doesn’t fix the problems of the people who will be using it.

People will have different definitions of success. It’s worth looking at it from the perspective of different stakeholders too. Success for the national executive may look different to how it looks for the membership team.

Focusing on the outcomes you want, rather than working towards outputs, is helpful. If you focus on the detail of any one system too early, you could find yourself trying to fit the union into a system you have picked, rather than finding the best system to fit the union.

It’s important to have an open mind. The process will be a long one, and you will likely need to change some of your assumptions as you go, adjusting course to accommodate what you find out.

6) Everything we do helps build the union

CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management, and the big platforms are built from a commercial sales perspective. But union members are more than just customers – they should be empowered by our technology to take an active role in the union. So a union needs to do more than just service them as efficiently as possible, or we may end up undermining what makes us a union.

Focusing on meaningful metrics in reporting where you can, will help show things like industrial strength and organising capacity as well as individual member service levels.  

7) Make things usable and familiar

It doesn’t matter how technically advanced a new system is, if it doesn’t feel easy for people to use, it will be way less likely to be successful.

We are used to using tech in so many areas of our lives that we’ve got used to how we access it, or how it feels – How a typical search tool or button might work for example. Try to avoid reinventing anything that people are already used to. Staff may be doing the same thing many times a day. Putting even slight hurdles in their way will cause significant delay over time, not to mention significant annoyance.

You might consider this in choosing a system that feels like a logical extension of your existing IT – for example having a common Microsoft look and feel. Or it might mean using APIs or integrations to hook in already-familiar 3rd party tools for functions like emailing or reporting.

And it’s also worth considering how you give your system a consistent look and feel, especially for reps and members. Do the member-facing parts match the feel of your website, and use the same logins and terminology, for example?

8) Collaborate widely

You will need to work with people from all parts of the organisation, but it’s important to find allies and champions for the project, who will see the value of the new system and help you demonstrate it to their colleagues who are less convinced so far.

Documenting and sharing your work as you go will help with subsequent phases of the project.

External collaboration will be important too. A union’s CRM needs to fit the requirements of the organisation first and foremost. But there is also a strong potential to share approaches with other unions. Over 2023, unions are likely to coalesce increasingly around the major CRM platforms, Salesforce, Dynamics and iMIS. Reaching out to other unions on the same platforms could help share the journey, gain helpful insights and reduce risk of surprises.

Read our full Digital Lab design principles report from 2019 here.