Using root cause analysis to help you identify where digital can make the biggest difference

This guide explores the use of fishbone/root cause analysis as a way of for you and your team to establish key areas and issues that may need to change.  Root cause analysis helps you to identify your organisation’s biggest challenges and weaknesses and how digital change can help to address them.

This resource is available in English and Welsh
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Image courtesy of Visit York ©

Using root cause analysis to help you identify where digital can make the biggest difference

1. Introduction

In this resource our expert, Dr Stephen Dobson, University of Leeds, explains how you can use ‘Fishbone’ analysis to help you determine which problems your organisation might be able to address with digital change.

The first step in identifying the most important areas where digital can have a positive impact on your heritage organisation involves some soul-searching about what are the key challenges and issues you face. If digital change may be seen as a solution, then what is the problem or problems that it is solving?

Usually, any team will disagree on the root causes of problems.  You may all be looking at them from slightly different perspectives and from the point of view of different aspects of the organisation.

This is where employing a framework to guide your approach can help you make sense of what is happening within your organisation. With this approach, it becomes easier to assess the role digital change can have in helping your organisation run more smoothly.

2. Root cause analysis

In the 1950s, Japanese Professor Kaurou Ishikawa recommended a visual approach to exploring the root cause for problems and identifying the key areas for change. This approach is also referred to as ‘Fishbone’ analysis due to the appearance of the diagram, which can be seen below.

A fishbone diagram listing the six categories for analysis: technology, process, people, heritage assets, environment and management with branches for primary and secondary causes of a problem
A fishbone diagram listing the six categories for analysis: technology, process, people, heritage assets, environment and management with branches for primary and secondary causes of a problem

Conducting your analysis

As with any aspect of a change programme, it is important to get as many staff, trustees and volunteers together to do this analysis in an open and participatory manner.

Step 1: Brainstorm a key problem or issue – this might relate to falling visitor numbers or lack of engagement with a new resource or website. Or perhaps it may be the lack of representation from diverse groups or young people in events or in the demographic make-up of visitors.

Step 2: The ‘five whys’ – in each of the six categories – are then explored in detail to establish if anyone thinks they contribute to the problem. There are bound to be disagreements and the discussions may even get quite heated. It is important here to note down all opinions and not to close down or try to filter the causes of problems at this stage. Everyone will want to feel that they are being heard and that their opinions are valuable.

The categories are:

  • Technology – the IT and systems that are used by the organisation.
  • Process – the administrative and operational day-to-day routines in running the organisation.
  • People – the number of available staff and their skills, knowledge and expertise.
  • Heritage assets – these include artefacts, exhibits, sites, structures, landscape or physical and digital records.
  • Environment – the place, local community, local, regional and national identity. The office spaces and infrastructure.
  • Management – this may refer to management style, information flow, effective team leadership etc.

If someone feels that there is a particular issue associated with one of these categories, then this is written onto the branch as a sub-branch or a ‘primary cause’. The whole group then thinks of why this might be a cause of the problem. All the possibilities are written on this branch as secondary causes. This is then repeated. The idea is that the root cause (or causes) is never more than ‘five whys’ away from the problem.

3. Key takeaways

Consider the following points when approaching digital change through the lens of a ‘Fishbone’ analysis. Consider how you might apply this in your organisation.

  • Using an open question approach like this to analyse a problem is a constructive way to help diffuse tensions and to manage disagreement.
  • It is helpful in determining the relationship between a perceived problem and its root causes.
  • This kind of analysis helps target any digital strategy or investment decisions in the more important areas for your organisation.
  • As a participatory exercise it helps ensure the right start to a process of change with all involved feeling like they share the problem and have contributed to the planned solutions.
  • Investing in digital resources, new technology, and training can sometimes feel like unnecessary expenditure to some staff – if they can see how it fits into solving some root causes of a bigger problem then you are much more likely to gain support.

4. Your analysis

Now try the approach for yourself. Use a Fishbone diagram to conduct your own analysis and apply it to your organisation. You can either draw your own version using the image in the root cause analysis section of this article, or view this free template to identify your key challenges and issues where digital can help.

More help here

A female baker sells bread at a market

Persuading your stakeholders of the value of digital change

Any kind of organisational change can be challenging. This guide provides a useful framework for understanding how to communicate with and involve staff and volunteers in addressing the need for digital change in heritage organisations.

Light installation from Illuminating York, British heritage city

Why might digital change be a necessary disruption for my organisation?

Managing change is necessary in a landscape of rapid changes and emerging new technologies. This resource introduces a practical tool to help heritage organisations make the most of the opportunities that digital innovation may offer. Exploring the art of ‘improvisation’, you will learn how to embrace productive change.


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Published: 2022
Resource type: Articles

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Using root cause analysis to help you identify where digital can make the biggest difference (2022) by Dr Stephen Dobson supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


More help here

Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

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