Interview with Jonathan Wood, Head of Society Programmes, British Ecological Society

Published: 06 Jul 2020
Last reviewed: 30 Oct 2020

We recently spoke to Jonathan Wood, Head of Society Programmes, British Ecological Society about their digital transformation, why now and how they started.


Tell us a little bit about yourself and your organisation?

The British Ecological Society is the largest scientific society for ecologists in Europe with a membership of over 6,000 in around 120 countries worldwide.

Ecologists study the interactions among living things and their environment. Their work provides new knowledge of the interdependence between people and nature that is vital for food production, maintaining clean air and water, and sustaining biodiversity in a changing climate. We firmly believe that ecology enriches our world and is crucial for human wellbeing and prosperity.

The Society seeks to support the ecology community at all stages of their careers through our scientific journals, meetings, grants, and education and policy work. As Head of Society Programmes, I lead the team that manages what members see – all our member engagement work, events, grants and communications.

I’m new to the membership sector. I joined the BES right at the end of 2018 from a background in media and communications for various science and research organisations, including Oxford University, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Francis Crick Institute.


Recently you have started a digital transformation, what drove you to start now?

We pride ourselves on the quality of our journal content, the steps we are taking to improve inclusivity and the service we provide to our members. But our CRM system has been letting us down for some time. Manual workarounds and lack of flexibility have caused us to lose faith in our current system and we’re unable to make the most of the data we have in guiding decisions and providing a better service to members.

To put this right with a new CRM system that works for us, we realised we needed some external assistance to ensure that any solution put in place would fit our needs now and far into the future. After speaking to a few consultants, we asked Chrysalis Digital to work with us to produce a business plan to secure a fully scoped budget for finding a new CRM system, map out our business requirements and run a robust tender process.

Right from the start, it was clear they understood us as a society, could see the problem and had the knowledge of the market to guide us in making the right decisions. We then co-presented this plan to the finance committee and the budget was successfully allocated and we could start the process. We’re now deep into a project with Bluelight to implement a new CRM system for the Society that should launch in September.


Aside from the digital project, how have you adapted to the lockdown, what are the focuses of the British Ecological Society?

With the lockdown, while we were postponing and cancelling events we also moved quickly to consider what new things we could do for our membership and the wider ecological community. We based this on what we knew our membership were going through, and we also asked them in a quick survey.

Ecologists weren’t able to be in the field, universities were closing campuses, lecturers were having to change overnight to teach online and students were having to do exams from home. Some were finding they had loads of time on their hands writing scientific papers and applying for new funding. Others had less than zero time and felt they were failing in trying to balance everything with childcare and homeschooling.

Like many organisations, we were fast to experiment with what platforms like Zoom and Teams could do for us. A weekly series of talks from top researchers, Ecology Live, has been extremely successful. We had to keep upping our Zoom package into the thousands to cope with the immediate interest from ecologists all around the world, and even now we still have several hundred people tuning in each week on Zoom and several hundred more watch the videos on Youtube. These numbers and the international reach are way beyond what we’ve achieved before. We published lots of stories from researchers about how lockdown was affecting them. We provided tips on online teaching, made our membership magazine in March available to all and have run several webinars on maintaining mental health. Finally, we’ve started running online workshops and conferences with our Special Interest Groups to start to replace the in-person events we had to cancel. All of this content has done exceptionally well, showing what a need there was for it.


How important is being able to use data in decision making for the British Ecological Society?

During 2019 we developed our strategic plan for the next 4 years. Ecology has never been more important and making sure that we can continue to develop and provide the right content for our members is key.

The CRM system underpins these strategic initiatives and is therefore business-critical for us. It is great to see there’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm for this change across the organisation and I have seen the attitudes towards CRMs go from low to high. We are moving from just 4 CRM users to all staff having access and being active users. This robust process has helped them see the benefit of a maintained central system and feel part of the society’s digital journey.


Which organisations do you feel are leading the way in innovation in this sector?

Being still new to the sector, I’m not sure I really know! Nor have I had a chance to look around and compare approaches as much as I would like. So anything I say should certainly be treated with a certain scepticism. What I do know is that when I worked in more medical and health areas, we always checked what Wellcome was up to in communications, in digital and in policy and tried to emulate what we could with less resource. Already in my new(ish) role I feel I am already doing the same with the National Trust.


What future trends do you think we’ll see over the coming months?

The uncertainty we all had to react to with coronavirus remains today and for the foreseeable. The challenges and trends over the coming months will reflect this. In reality, none of us knows what will really happen, and we’re all prone to speculate based on our hopes, individual observations and prior beliefs.

I suspect that the pull of getting back to normal will be strong. But at the same time I believe the opposite – that things have changed, there is a new desire for doing digital really well and we all want more flexibility. Maybe both things can be true at the same time, but I try not to waste too much time thinking about it.

Instead, we’re trying to focus on balancing what we can with the uncertainty. Not least with our Annual Meeting, our flagship event each year, which takes place in December. Not knowing what the situation will be by then, we are looking at a whole range of options this year to make sure we enable the ecological community to come together in the best way possible.

The challenge longer term is how we make the most of what has been successful during this period – in new content, in the international reach of online events and webinars – while bringing back what people have been missing – in-person events, networking and socialising.

There are lots of questions here: Do we have the resource to do all this? Can we add digital into existing physical events, or are they different things? Given that ecologists may be facing pressures in job security, research funding and paused careers, what do our members most value from us in these changing times? We also need somehow to connect this new participation into our new CRM when launched later this year and use the data to guide our decisions.

I fully expect that we’ll need to be just as innovative and quick to react in answering these questions as we have been so far. I also believe we are well placed to rise to the challenge with a great team and the right new system, and there will actually be a lot to look forward to in improving our support for ecologists.

Chrysalis digital worked closely with the British Ecological Society from the start. Once the business plan had been co-produced, Chrysalis Digital worked right across the British Ecological Society to map their business requirements, processes and data to inform the tender process. This, combined with their CRM knowledge enabled Chrysalis Digital to run a robust tender process ensuring they found a solution that would support the British Ecological Society now and far into the future.

If you would like to read more about the programme that Chrysalis Digital ran with the British Ecological Society please click here to read the full case study.