Building digital capability in your organisation

Photo by Clayton Cardinalli on Unsplash

For any digital transformation effort to be a success, it needs to have a organisation that is open to change to work with.

This is often a bit of a stumbling block, because even if you have an amazing digital team and a kick-ass programme in place, if the people across the organisation don’t understand what you’re on about, then you’re in trouble.

This is why one of the projects you need to initiate early on is a digital capability programme. This should provide just enough digital knowledge, understanding and – most important – confidence in the people you work with to keep things running smoothly.

There are a few different ways to approach this. Here’s some of the things I have found work well – you can pick and choose and adapt as you see fit!

Build your leaders’ digital confidence

There is no getting around the fact that you must have the buy in from senior people in your organisation. In fact, buy in doesn’t really cut it – they need to own this thing. Oftentimes leaders -whether they be politicians or senior management types – need a regular reminder of what really matters when it comes to digital and what they need to do to support this.

What I have found is that a one-off workshop is great for getting some excitement and momentum, but it’s really, really easy for that to dissipate if you don’t follow it up. I’d recommend getting workshops booked in for every other month with your most senior management team, if you can.

Another idea is to put in place a form of one to one coaching for senior people. Often they might not be willing to confess to not knowing things within a group context, so providing a safe space where they can perhaps be a little more vulnerable might be a good idea. It also helps foster your own relationship with them and builds trust, and gives you the chance to help them take a long term view of their need for understanding and commitment to the digital cause.

Digital champions or advocates

Building a network of enthusiastic and knowledgeable digital people across your organisation can be an incredibly useful way to spread goodwill about your efforts in departments other than your own. It’s really important though to avoid ‘milk monitor syndrome’ in creating yet another opportunity for people to volunteer for something nobody wants to do. One way to do this is to maybe avoid titles like ‘champions’ and instead go for something newer sounding – I like ‘advocates’.

One key thing is to engage with the already-enthused. Any network or community of practice like this will die a death if people feel they are forced to be there. Find those hidden, motivated digital enthusiasts who want to be a part of something and will make change happen because they want to.

Some of the things you can do to make your advocates network something people might actually want to join:

  • Run face to face events as well as online networking to build trust in the network
  • Make things available to your advocate network that other’s don’t get – whether early access to new digital services, learning and development opportunities or even just a sticker for their laptop
  • Organise an excursion – maybe to visit another similar organisation to yours to see how they do things, or perhaps to a digital company in another sector

Big thanks to the digital doers community for their help in sharing what has worked for them building these internal enthusiast networks.

10 things you need to know

This is something I have been banging on about for a while, and I have seen it – or similar – done really well in a couple of places. To me there is a basic amount of knowledge that you would want everybody in the organisation to know about digital and transformation. Not the specifics on how to use certain products or services, or even how to run agile ceremonies or user research, but instead focusing on the big picture things people really need to understand to ‘get’ what you are trying to achieve.

This could be delivered in a number of ways, but I like the scalability of an e-learning course, one that could be pitched to anyone in the organisation, from the CEO to front line workers. It should give everyone the core knowledge they need, so you can move quickly when working with other service areas.

Internal blogging or newsletter

Working in the open makes things better, we know this. However sometimes we can work more openly internally, to let people know what we are up to. It’s a great way to spread your cultural tentacles, whether in the form of a regular newsletter or an internal blog. It helps you ‘show the thing’ to a wider audience than can attend show and tells, for instance, and can bring your weeknotes to more people’s attention.

You might worry that people won’t be interested but my experience is that people are way more interested than you assume they are – and if you can add some character and humour to your comms, that will help a lot too.

Come along for the ride

A final idea is to get people from other departments involved in the work you are doing even if they wouldn’t ordinarily be a part of the project. Digital volunteering, in other words. Say you have someone who you’d like to expose to agile delivery methods – why not invite them to play a role on the team, attend the ceremonies, and deliver some of the work. There is no better way of learning this stuff than by doing it and being surrounded by others doing it, and creating a way for people to get experience of it before being involved in a project they are truly responsible for is a great approach.

The importance of inclusion

I can’t finish this article without flagging up the importance of taking an inclusive approach to your capability building. People’s backgrounds can have a huge impact on how they engage with change and new ways of looking at work, and it’s important to ensure that whatever training, workshops or other learning activity you put in place acknowledge this and are built around the needs of those engaging with it. Take the time to understand the people you are going to be working with, and demonstrate that digital doesn’t just mean churning out cookie-cutter experiences using technology.

In other words, your capability programme should be a great exemplar of user centred design itself!

The roles you really must have on your digital team

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The ideal

The GDS service manual is very clear on the roles required to run a proper multidisciplinary team to deliver digital services. It states that you must have a

  • product manager
  • service owner
  • delivery manager
  • user researcher
  • content designer
  • designer
  • developer

And this is, of course, quite right. Doing good digital work means taking it seriously, and that means resourcing it properly.

Indeed, 7 people doesn’t sound like that many, right? Well, in some organisations where the entire digital and IT team is only 10 people, which includes application support and the helpdesk, it’s huge. And most importantly, it’s never going to happen.

The compromise

In this situation you have to be prepared to compromise. I think you can get this down to three people in terms of a full time digital team, with the need to borrow a bit of time from others to get really specialised stuff done.

What this means though is coming up with some new roles that combine some of those in the GDS list.

First you need someone who understand both digital and services and can work between the two. In a traditional project this would probably be your business analyst, but that won’t quite cut it here. This person needs to be able to do a bit of BA, but also be handy at running user research sessions, writing user stories, and managing the backlog. Some kind of service design thinking would be helpful too, ensuring a focus on building an end-to-end service that delivers on that user need.

In my chat with Ben Unsworth, he mentioned a role in his team called ‘Business Designer’. Now, to be clear, this is NOT the role I describe above, but it is a great title for it!

Second you need someone who can build your digital service for you. This depends on your tech stack of course in terms of the specific skills, but a developer will be the person to do this. Now, in this smaller team, they are likely to need to be skilled in various disciplines, as they are likely responsible for not just the new digital service, but also building the integrations, the workflows, the web forms and so on.

Third, you need an organiser. They will need to be more hands-on than a pure Delivery Manager would be, but would combine elements of that role with more traditional project management activities, including liaising with suppliers and other third parties. The organiser would also pick up some other bits, such as managing the performance of the project, perhaps using OKRs, managing the transition from project to live service and BAU support, and also considering how the success of the service will be judged in the future.

Other specialist roles you either need access to, or some time from up front from, include:

  • Someone to influence others – in smaller organisations, it might well be a good idea to have a sponsoring Director that you can use to get others to toe the line, and to ensure others at the top are making the right decisions, and supporting the work
  • Someone to get the interaction design right – this is such an important element of successful digital services but often gets overlooked. At the very least, hire someone to produce a design system that can be easily followed by your developer
  • Someone to (re)write the web copy – having good content design is absolutely vital to building a successful digital service. Hopefully you will have someone in the web team or the comms department who can help out with this when needed
  • Someone to check what you’ve done – with a small, tight squad, it’s often easy to take pride in your work to the extent that you might miss whether you’ve done the right thing or not. So it’s a good idea to have someone neutral who can do a bit of quality assurance on it. A good way to do this might be to run a service assessment on completed projects before they go live.

Is it ideal to build end-to-end digital services using just a team of 3 people? No! But the reality of the situation in many smaller organisations is that having dedicated product managers and service designers is just never going to happen.

Having a small, motivated and enthusiastic squad of three adaptable multi-skilled people working together on multiple projects, and this building their trust in one another, can really get a lot done. Just as long as they are allowed to focus and don’t get dragged into other stuff all the time!

The thing you mustn’t miss

What I have neglected to mention until now is the vital importance of having committed involvement of the service you are transforming involved in your project. You need both a leader from that department around, to make decisions and to ensure there is strategic buy-in for the changes being made.

Then you’ll also need some front line folk and managers on board so they can give their perspective and also ensure they feel like they are part of the change, and can champion it to their colleagues.

The elephant in the room – capability

The question all this leads us to ask, is where can these three people with this amazing set of skills be found? Are there service designers who can also product manage, user research and process map just sitting around in large numbers, waiting to be called upon?

No, of course not. However, I can pretty much guarantee that somewhere in your organisation, there is a great organiser, an enthusiastic techie and, yes, an eager person who has a really good empathetic understanding of the needs of the users of your services.

I am not intending to diminish the professional importance or ability of the roles described in the GDS service manual. Where possible you should always try and find the budget to employ properly trained and experienced people in what are genuinely specialised roles.

But when you just can’t afford to do that, stick to the maxim that you hire for attitude and train for skills. Find the people who want to do this: those with ideas and the fire in their bellies needed to make change happen – and make sure you support them to give them the skills and experience to help them do a great job – whether through training, coaching and mentoring, or pointing them to websites with loads of sensible technology and digital advice.