Even if we adopt Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital – and we should – it’s still necessary to interpret it in the context of the service you are looking to digitise.
I’ve worked out a really simple framework for thinking about this, by dividing the options into three distinct levels, or approaches to, digital change. None is necessarily right or wrong, but it’s always likely that one is more appropriate to achieving the outcome you desire for a particular service, in a particular context. Moreover, they shouldn’t be seen as fixed – instead, you can evolve a service through the levels as context changes. The levels are digital access, digital redesign and digital transformation.
Digital access simply means taking a process that currently doesn’t work on the internet, and making sure that it does. Much of the digital work before around 2012 was of this nature, often called things like ‘e-government’ or, later, ‘channel shift’. A lot of the early efforts were based on putting electronic versions of forms on a website, often as a PDF, which would have to be printed out, filled in with a pen and then returned, either by scanning and emailing or, most likely, sticking it in the post.
That sort of thing isn’t really good enough these days, and so the more modern approach is to have online web-based forms that the user can complete there and then. It’s quick and simple and does one of the most important things – it makes things convenient for the user, at least at the start of the process.
The downside is that these forms when used just for digital access tend to email details to the back office, where a human has to read them, process them, enter details into the line of business system and so on. Also, the user won’t be aware of the progress of their transaction unless they phone up and ask. More troubling is that if services never evolve beyond digital access, it masks a lack of progress and ambition.
- Demonstrates progress
- Convenient for users (especially if they are used to paper)
- User will be frustrated with what is still a fundamentally manual service
- No efficiency gains for the organisation
- Can be a mask for a lack of progress (we’ve digitised all of our services! errrr…)
Digital redesign cranks things up a notch, and I suspect it is the area where most attention is being paid at the moment. It goes beyond digital access by creating real changes to services when they are digitised. These come in two main flavours:
- redesigning processes and user experiences
- making the technology work smarter, through integrations and introducing new capabilities
Digital redesign takes longer than access, but the rewards are greater in terms of better meeting people’s expectations and potential for savings and other efficiencies. The outcomes are also less certain, which means risk levels are a little higher – so taking an agile approach is definitely a good idea.
To make this work, you’re also going to need to do things like user research and employ some service design thinking – considering the whole service from end to end from the user’s perspective to ensure it meets their needs, as well as those for the organisation.
- Greater returns from your effort
- It’s actually properly changing something, rather than just sticking forms on the web
- It’s not so ambitious that people won’t understand what you’re trying to achieve
- Needs more people, more skills, potentially new technology, which means more money
- Can take a while, so unless you manage the work in an agile way, it might take time before seeing results
- Integrating into back office systems can take years off your life
So what, then, is digital transformation? Well, when a service is truly transformed for the internet era, it takes a completely blank piece of paper approach to its design. You take as first principles that the majority of your users have access to the internet, wherever they may be, and design around that.
This is the bit of Tom’s definition of digital that refers to business, or operating, models. One of the best ways to describe this idea is to think about some of the new, digital age companies that have come to have such an impact on our lives:
- AirBnB is a global hotel company that owns no hotels
- Uber is a global taxi firm that owns no cars
- Amazon is a global retail empire that has no (or very few!) actual shops
These companies base their operating model design on the fact that the majority of people have access to the internet the majority of the time. It’s what makes hailing a cab via a smartphone app viable.
True digital transformation does the same thing, but with existing services. Note that this is much harder than it sounds – coming up with workable, transformative operating models isn’t an easy thing to do in the first place, but even less so when a service is live and working already, in a mature organisational setting.
Another issue is that some of the rather trite ways that this is presented – “What is the Uber of social care?” – can be rather off putting – over-simplifying what is an incredibly complex web of interlocking services, providers and funding mechanisms. Nonetheless, sometimes a rather blunt way of expressing a problem space like this (“the AirBnB of emergency accomodation!”) does help people start to think a bit deeper about how they might redesign a service from the ground up in the digital era.
The final consideration I would raise here is that many of the business models of these modern internet companies is also based on their access to many billions of dollars of venture capital funding, which is used to fund fast growth, soak up early losses, and establish brand recognition and market dominance. Public services have no access to such funding, although they do often have a natural monopoly – which while is not the same thing, it could perhaps be leveraged to make an operating model redesign more likely to succeed.
To sum up, true digital transformation is extremely rare, but is the pinnacle of what can be achieved when completely redesigning a service for the internet age. As local public services become increasingly cash-strapped, it’s something that more organisations must start seriously thinking about.
- Genuinely transformative, creating services built for the digital age that meet users’ expectations
- The kind of change that is needed to protect local public services in the future
- You’re likely to attract great people to work on such a project
- A lot of work. You’ll have to go back to first principles and design out from there, which will take time and effort
- Risky, there are a lot of opportunities to make missteps, so taking an agile approach will be key to minimising the impact
- This requires organisation-wide buy in and support, so building a coalition to commit to this will be a massive job
Hopefully that helps. The important thing to remember is that there are different ways of approaching digitisation, each with its own balance of risk and reward. Which you choose will depend on a number of factors, including the digital maturity of the whole organisation and the service itself, the people and tech you have access to, the amount of time you have, and the outcomes you need to achieve.
Also, bear in mind that you don’t have to take just one approach. It’s perfectly plausible to start with applying digital access to a service, then evolving it into a digitally redesigned service, all the while plotting a complete transformation further down the line.