Developing digital leadership in heritage

Developing digital leadership in heritage

Anra Kennedy
Anra Kennedy reports from Leading the Sector – our digital skills development course for heritage leaders.
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Why digital leadership is crucial

Digital tools, technologies and behaviours began changing the way we work, learn and play long before COVID-19 appeared. The pandemic turbulence is speeding up those changes, bringing huge challenges and opportunities to the heritage sector.

Without digitally confident leadership, heritage organisations will struggle to keep up and ultimately will struggle to survive. We need leaders that understand the societal changes digital brings and how this impacts on heritage.

"Digitally literate leadership doesn’t mean all leaders need to be technical whizzes, but they do need to understand why digital matters."

What does that mean in practice? What can leaders do to develop their digital confidence and where do they start? We set out to find the answer to these questions in our Leading the Sector course.

Leading the Sector

Leading the Sector, part of The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Digital Skills for Heritage initiative, is a professional development course in digital leadership.

Led by Culture24, the course brings together 16 leaders from a range of medium-to-large organisations.

Common challenges

Three months in to the nine-month programme we’re seeing common challenges emerging. Whatever your organisation’s scale, capacity, type of heritage or purpose I’m sure many of these will ring true for you too.

Our cohort is grappling with ways to:

  • Develop their personal digital understanding and skills.
  • Understand and build staff and volunteers’ digital confidence and skills.
  • Use digital tools and processes to be more efficient, productive and creative.
  • Understand and use data more effectively.
  • Better understand their current and potential audiences.
  • Harness digital tools and channels to build meaningful and more diverse teams, communities and engagement.
  • Understand what digital innovation means for their organisation and how to do it effectively.
  • Understand the role of digital in revenue generation.
  • Ensure decisions around digital are led by people’s needs and organisational purpose, not by the technology.
People referring to computer and tablet in meeting
Leaders need to understand how digital fits into their organisations


There is no one-size-fits-all way to tackle challenges of this nature and develop digital leadership because, whilst we have challenges in common, no two organisational contexts are the same.

Meeting these challenges

The best way to make sustainable, meaningful change happen is to actively experiment with new approaches – learning by doing.

The leaders in this cohort have begun experimenting in different ways, including:

  • Testing delivery methods and viability of online learning sessions.
  • Testing new ways of accessing and sharing critical information and procedures via staff smartphones.
  • Implementing use of a Customer Relationship Management system.
  • Testing new newsletter formats.
  • Developing new relationships with 15-24 year-olds, bringing their voices into decisions around digital.
  • Introducing a ‘human centred’ approach to the design of a pre-existing, technology-heavy digital transformation project.

The value and impact of experimentation like this can go far beyond whatever the practical focus happens to be. The experiments are starting points – the beginning of an ongoing process of testing, evidence-gathering, analysis and adjustment to develop digital leadership and, ultimately, to build an organisation’s digital capability.

"The best way to make sustainable, meaningful change happen is to actively experiment with new approaches – learning by doing." 

Taking time to track and analyse processes and progress, to reflect on what’s happening and why is crucial. This approach to building understanding and confidence can work in all settings.

Being a digitally literate leader

Digitally literate leadership doesn’t mean all leaders need to be technical whizzes, but they do need to understand why digital matters and how it fits into their organisation’s bigger picture.

They need to build their digital literacy to a point where they can create conditions for change, enabling staff and volunteers to value skills development and build their organisation’s confidence in all aspects of digital.

Join our digital leadership webinar

To find out more about the theory and practice of digital leadership, join the Leading the Sector team and one of our cohort in a free Digital Skills for Heritage webinar on Thursday 17 September.

Digital Skills for Heritage

Digital Skills for Heritage is The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s ambitious initiative designed to raise digital skills and confidence across the whole UK heritage sector.

It offers guidance, resources and opportunities to develop digital skills – including in digital leadership.

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