2024 marks the fifth year of our shared journey into digital change for unions, with the TUC’s Digital Lab programme.
Since we started, we’ve tackled best practice on digital in many areas of union activity, and worked directly with many unions to test new ways of working. And unions have done some brilliant work – Our case studies page just passed 50 great examples from across our affiliates, and more are coming in all the time.
We’ve tried to respond to affiliates’ changing needs as well. 2023 was busy with work around union core membership systems change, and supporting strike ballot campaigns, where we’ve seen real impact for unions using peer-to-peer tools to involve activists in turning out some historic votes.
As we turn towards 2024, we’re expecting to see more work on four broad areas for digital unions. Here’s a bit more about where we’re planning to take the programme over the next 12 months.
The first challenge is around the tools and the data that we need in order to operate effectively.
Lots of our unions are facing big changes to our core tech at the moment, as a number of popular and long-used products are being discontinued. At minimum, it means unions will need to evaluate understand the options they have, and the risks and opportunities in switching to a new generation of tech. And for many it will mean complicated and expensive projects, lasting through 2024 and beyond. Given the long timelines involved in a switch, that research needs to start early if it hasn’t already.
This stuff is well outside our comfort zone. Most of us don’t have a culture of making big tech buying decisions. For many unions, it’s been a decade or more since we bought our core membership systems and in many cases they’re now holding us back as we try to do more than they were designed to accommodate.
One silver lining here is that it is giving some unions the impetus to move onto modern CRM platforms instead. This can let more people around the union have access to the data they need. It can mean better links with comms tools for better insights into what members want and more personalised and effective comms. And it can reduce the data entry work needed in the organisation and speed up processes.
And the data we hold in these systems isn’t always great either. The national ballots that lots of us ran over the last year also showed us that member contact details are often out of date, meaning members never get the messages we’re sending them, and that running real-time reports in a fast moving campaign can be difficult.
So our first challenge here is getting our infrastructure right – our systems fit for purpose, and our data accurate and available where it’s needed.
Next up we have some of the risks that come from not being in a more stable place on tech.
Shadow IT is the top of our risk register at the TUC. That’s where our people are using software unofficially, often without the knowledge of our IT team. I’ve probably been as guilty as anyone on this!
And it’s understandable. Over the pandemic, people just got on with it and innovated. Organisers and branches set up new Zoom accounts here and new SurveyMonkey accounts there. People started using their own devices to do union work at home.
Mountains got moved, but we sometimes ended up losing track of where the union’s tools and data are. That gives us some big headaches:
We don’t know what we’re spending, with loads of small paid accounts adding up to more than union-wide ones.
We find it hard to support and train dozens of different systems that weren’t chosen centrally.
But most importantly sensitive union members’ data is flying around the internet, held in accounts that are expiring or might get hacked.
When we need to fulfill our legal obligations with a subject access or deletion request, this can make the process much lengthier for our data protection officers than it needs to be. So getting on top of shadow IT will be high up on many unions’ lists.
We’re also seeing ever more sophisticated attempts to break into web systems, with increased incidences of ransomware or malware attempting to get into the organisation through emails or messaging. AI is going to supercharge that, and if we can’t afford adequate security or train all relevant users, then we may be vulnerable.
And if the worst happens and a rep tries to “BCC” the branch but puts the emails in the “To” field, or if an unsecured local account gets hacked, the union could be on the hook for fines from the ICO.
Tech skills and roles
Third we have the skills and roles we need to make the most of new digital approaches.
Many small or mid-sized unions outsource IT provision or have just one or two people in the roles. And that means IT can be seen as purely a service function – keeping things going – rather than a strategic one – helping the union find out how to make use of IT for business goals.
This matters more and more, because our tools are getting more powerful and their potential is growing.
Modern platform CRMs or Microsoft Office’s Power Platform have a huge range of ways they can be connected together to build whole new tools and processes for the union.
For example, Accord have been using the automations and workflows in Microsoft Office to build case handling tools. Or UCU have been looking at interactive analytics tools for local bargaining with Tableau.
But to do that, you need more people in all your teams to become power users. That’s people who can not just use the tools but put the building blocks together in new ways.
We also aspire to be more data driven in what we do. There’s a huge opportunity across unions to gather, analyse and present data to inform strategy, if we can help more of our staff and reps to work more comfortably with data and data systems.
And lastly, you can’t have gone a week in 2023 without someone telling you AI is going to solve everything or destroy everything.
Artificial Intelligence is a contested term, but it boils down to predictive AI, which finds patterns in large data sets and extrapolates to make predictions for new situations, and generative AI, which has analysed how written language or imagery works, through a process of analysing the most probable connections, and can then rehash those connections to piece together new variants of texts or images.
The TUC and the unions in our AI working group have been looking at the implications of these new technologies for our members in their work. The tech is billed as the ultimate productivity aid for nearly any job, and there are many promising applications for it.
But as it’s being developed without worker engagement or transparency, it runs the risk of supercharging the existing biases in historic data or the biases of its sometimes less-than-diverse group of coders.
And in transitioning to an AI economy, where the capitalists are the ones building and buying the tech, this could disrupt whole industries without a thought for the future of their current workforce.
It’s going to be a big task for us and our reps in spotting AI coming into all our workplaces, and challenging the harms it will cause, micro and macro.
And it’s not going to be a revolution we can ignore internally either. Predictive AI will help us understand members’ data and give them a better experience – recruiting and retaining more members for us. Generative AI can help us support them more quickly and efficiently. Providing we can understand what we want to achieve, and we can do it consistently and fairly, according to our own principles.
What about your 2024?
How do your own union’s digital plans for the coming year look? One of the most enjoyable things about the Digital Lab programme has always been that we’re able to respond to our affiliates’ needs as they change. Often when one union needs something, it’s also going to be an issue for others too, and there’s a lot of use in bringing interested people together to explore it.
So please do make it your new year’s resolution to reach out and let us know what you want to see in 2024, and we’ll do our best to make it happen.