But the real answer to the question depends on how IT is defined. If narrow definition is used and IT is taken to mean nothing more than base infrastructure, then Carr’s viewpoint remains correct. If, however, the definition of IT encompasses the entirety of an organization’s technology portfolio and strategy, however, the assertion that IT doesn’t matter could not be less accurate today.
Bezos’ letters make splendid material for a Business School course on Strategy and Communication. A caveat applies, however. Most of the strategies and practices advocated by Amazon’s founder have broad applicability, but a central mystery remains: Bezos himself, his combination of early life experience, intellect, emotional abilities and communication skills. Being Bezos isn’t teachable.
Great short-ish summary of the rise of aggregating platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon from the ever-insightful Ben Thompson:
I recently went through the rather painful process of applying for a senior digital transformation role in local government and not getting it. I might write in more detail at some point about it all, but right now I am far too bitter about the whole experience.
As part of the process I needed to talk about what I think the key themes are for councils when thinking about the impact of digital on what they do and how they do it, and I thought I would share them here – just in case some people find it more interesting than the original intended audience did.
1. Digital service design
Meeting the heightened expectations of residents, communities and businesses means radically rethinking how services are delivered. This requires new approaches to change that meet the specific requirements of each service’s users, and in the long term working to prevent those needs from emerging in the first place.
2. Digital workplace
In order to deliver the change that is needed, people need to have the best tools possible available to them, whether hardware or software. This means looking at the whole suite of technology, from productivity tools to line of business applications and the devices they run on. People also need to feel confident in using them, along with developing a customer-focused, commercial, flexible culture.
3. Digital inclusion
It’s vital that the services that many people rely on remain accessible to all of them. For some, using the internet will never meet their needs and so other forms of access will be needed. For others, there is much that councils can do to help them get the most from it.
4. Digital intelligence
Local councils should have the best understanding of the people, communities and businesses in their area. Often, however, this understanding is limited by the inability to make the best use of the data held in siloed systems that do not share information easily or in usable formats. This needs to change, along with keeping up with obligations around data protection and information security.
5. Digital economy
To protect and grow the local economy in the future, councils must do all they can to ensure local businesses can thrive in the digital age, and attract new enterprises to base themselves locally. This means ensuring businesses have access to high speed broadband; the equipment, systems and skills to make use of it; and easy, simple access to the council services they need.
6. Digital civic infrastructure
True digital transformation in local public services involves not just putting existing services online, but radically rewiring the local system to take advantage of shared, common digital components. The Council should take a lead in stewarding this work, collaborating with all organisations that meet local people’s needs, whether central government, the health sector or community and voluntary groups on a digital platform for genuinely joined up service delivery.
One thing that has been taking up quite a bit of my attention lately is how, in the real world, an organisation can do the kind or big picture, strategic transformation that’s almost certainly needed whilst making progress on what might be termed everyday digitisation – the sort of thing that makes peoples lives easier but doesn’t dramatically change the core operating model of the organisation.
I’ve imperfectly defined three ways to attack digitisation before:
- Access – taking a paper or telephone based process and whacking it online with an e-form (quick to do, few benefits except a bit of convenience for web savvy users)
- Efficiency – taking that process and digitising it end to end, involving the replacement or integration with back office systems, removing unnecessary admin touch points an so on (takes longer, more difficult, but yields better results)
- Transformation – taking an entire service and rethinking it from the ground up, knowing what we know about networks and connectivity (really hard, but could ensure the relevance of that service for the next 20 years).
The problem is that transformation is where the real action is, but it is hard, so hard in fact that it’s difficult in my experience to get people to even talk about it. In the meantime, you’ve got folk shouting at you to increase self service or decrease unnecessary demand.
In a recent conversation with Catherine Howe I reminded myself about Ben Thompson’s great analysis of the Amazon purchase of the Whole Foods supermarket chain (Amazon is, I think, by far the most interesting company of our times). In it he describes the concept of Amazon being its own best customer. When building the AWS service for cloud based computing infrastructure, they had a huge customer ready and waiting to use it (and more importantly, test the hell out of it): the Amazon.com e-commerce site. Likewise, having its own in house supermarket would be a great way to build and test Amazon’s emerging logistics business.
This I think gives a hint towards the way an organisation (I’m thinking of my usual local government context, to be clear, although it could work in other sectors too) could start laying the foundations for genuine transformation whilst doing some of the quick wins stuff in efficiency, and maybe a bit of access if they really have to.
By having an idea of what the future big picture might look like, it’s possible to start building things in the here and now in such a way that it delivers the short term gain whilst creating the capabilities, the building blocks, for making the future happen too.
The danger is to drive yourself into a technical cul-de-sac delivering on the immediate requirements which leaves you hamstrung in your ability to execute on the much greater strategic win of genuine transformation when that opportunity arises.
As always the difficulty with this conversation is figuring out what that future looks like. It’s easy to write posts saying “digital isn’t about tech! It’s about changing your fundamental operating model!” but such posts rarely tell you what one of those operating models might be. I don’t necessarily have an answer to that myself (the consultant in me screams “it depends!” at this point) but I’ll post a few thoughts another time.
What I would say though is that the ‘be your own customer’ part of this does point to an organisation in the future being the provider, or perhaps steward, of technical capabilities that can be shared and re-used across a wider (perhaps local) system. However other assets could also play a part in this and it doesn’t need to be a technology focused discussion.
Quite a mixture of stuff this week – plenty to dig into over the weekend.
- Interesting job at GDS, promoting the use of gov.uk Verify in local government. You have until the end of Sunday 2nd July to apply – so better get cracking if you fancy it. If you’re on the lookout for a digital-ish job, then I’d thoroughly recommend Matt Jukes’ weekly listing.
- Startup SaaS Stack – this is a nice way of looking at the small number of software as a service tools that a new organisation might need to have. Not just relevant to startups but any organisations – certainly community, voluntary and charity groups could look at this and get a cutting edge tech stack in place in minutes and almost no cash. It also is an effective introduction to thinking about capabilities rather than systems in planning what technology you need.
- User-centred digital strategy – a really nice set of slides from Sophie Dennis that explains why strategy is helpful and what good and bad strategy looks like. While you’re there, why not check out her other deck on ‘Adventures in policy land’ which looks at service design in government, and is equally excellent (both via Strategic Reading).
- Paul Maltby followed up the crowd sourced reading list that I shared last week with three posts on how digital teams and policy teams can work better together, titled ‘A short guide to policy for government digital professionals‘, ‘What digital and policy can learn from each other‘ and ‘Prototyping a One Team Government manifesto‘. All are worth reading and mulling over.
- Who is responsible for effective, efficient and secure digital government? – watch the video of a wide ranging discussion of the progress made in digitising government. There’s more on the Institute for Government’s work in this area in this blog post, including a link to their report on the topic. I think it’s pretty clear to most people that the wave of enthusiasm for the work of the GDS in particular seems to be waning, not least following the departure of a number of leaders from that team, but also as they start to get stuck into some of the more intractable problems around culture and the back office IT stack. I’d argue that what is needed is not so much management, or even leadership (whatever the hell that is) but authority – someone or some people with the mandate to make change happen and the ability to force it through when bureaucratic (on the government side) and kleptocratic (on the vendor side) intertia starts kicking in.
As part of the work putting together a Technology Strategy (think IT + digital) for my current employer, I came up with six principles of good technology. The idea is that each of these principles must be met by any piece of technology the organisation wishes to buy or to build.
(The purpose of the strategy is to develop what was a fairly traditional IT team into a rebranded ‘Technology Services’ team; and to bring them out of ‘maintenance mode’ and into more proactive space, where technology can be used to drive improvement and efficiency in the way that services are delivered. To my mind, IT in this sense cannot be worked around or ignored in a JFDI sense if you’re serious about transformation in your organisation – it must be tackled head on, otherwise you’re doomed to failure. More on this in a future post.)
Anyway, here are the principles, in case they are useful.
Cloud native – to ensure all the systems we use are designed for the internet age
Core to the Technology Strategy is for the Council to become a ‘cloud native’ organisation, making use of commoditised utility computing wherever possible. A district council has somewhat limited resources, and those resources are best spent where we can add most value, and to my mind, that isn’t in upgrading firmware or patching servers.
Our preferences when investing in systems is as follows:
- Software as a Service – where possible, we prefer to use a SaaS solution to minimise the responsibility we have to support and maintain a system’s infrastructure
- Platform as a Service – for bespoke workflows and requirements, we develop using a cloud-hosted, capability-based, off the shelf PaaS
- Infrastructure as a Service – where the market is yet to deliver an acceptable SaaS solution and the requirement is too complex to deliver via PaaS, then a more traditional application will be hosted within a public cloud environment such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure
Mobile ready – to ensure all the systems we use can be accessed anywhere, from any device
Legacy software was built for desktop based computing and thus doesn’t work well with the new style of devices that have emerged in the last decade.
We want staff to be able to make use of easy to use devices such as smartphones and tablets while working away from the office.
Any software we purchase, renew or develop must be enabled for mobile working out of the box, without the requirement for middleware or extra investment in specialist hardware.
Interoperable – to ensure the data our systems use is easily shared between people and applications
Legacy software makes exchanging data between systems difficult and expensive.
Cloud native systems and software offer freely accessible and publicly document application programming interfaces (APIs) and web services, which can be used to link systems together very simply, often with very limited programming required and use of ‘drag and drop’ style interfaces.
We will insist that all technology we invest in offers this ability to share data across systems.
Flexible – to ensure we make good use of shared platforms and capabilities across our services
Many of the systems we use are made up of the same common capabilities – booking , reporting, managing cases, payments, assessments and so forth – however they are trapped in service specific silos.
We wish to tackle this inflexibility by investing in flexible, generic capabilities that give us the building blocks to design our services, and the systems they run on, in the way we want to, and not be beholden to system suppliers.
Enabling customers – to ensure all the technology we deploy helps our customers enjoy a consistent journey across our services
We want to put our customers at the centre of the way we do things. This means two things:
- Any system we purchase or develop must have online self service as a foundational part of its design, to ensure as many as possible choose to take this option
- Service and system design should be based upon evidence generated through user research and take a customer-centric approach
Proportionately secure – to ensure that the Council’s and our customer’s data is as safe as it needs to be to enable us to deliver our best work
Information security is extremely important and we must be vigilant in looking after the data we hold, particularly that which belongs to our customers.
However, with our move to internet based technology, we can follow best practice guidance from central government to classify our information assets to enable us to work flexibly when it is appropriate to do so.
We want to encourage colleagues to think for themselves around information security, rather than relying on one size fits all policies that often are not adhered to.
I rather like this diagram that appeared in a post talking about Microsoft (which is well worth reading in and of itself).
It describes all the elements that make up what an organisation is and does. At the top, there are fewer words and they don’t change very often. At the moment, there are a lot more words and they are subject to regular change.
Strikes me as being a useful model to use to think about this stuff.
Increasingly, following a bit of a chat, it turns out you don’t.
I’ve been delivering training on digital tools, including social media, for a fair few years now. I’d like to think I’m quite good at it, and that those who leave my training sessions get a lot out of it.
One of the most frustrating things, though, is when at the end of some training, a learner will ask ‘so, will we actually be able to use this stuff?’ or ‘this has been great, but until I get these websites blocked I won’t be able to use anything I’ve learned’.
What’s happening is that there is an acknowledgement within an organisation that they need some additional digital capacity, so they send people on a course. Trouble is, the strategy, or vision, isn’t in place for the organisation – so those skills are going to go to waste.
Instead, if you want to spend some money on this stuff, it’s better to spend it first on developing some idea of where digital fits into your organisation.
One of the first commissions WorkSmart has received has been to do just this. The original brief was for a series of workshops explaining how to use the popular social media tools. Discussing it, though, everyone became aware that there was a piece of work to do first.
So, we’re running an agile little project, made up of a couple of workshops and some online deliberation and collaboration. The aim at the end will be to have a draft strategy document, outlining how the organisation can use digital tools and techniques – including stuff like agile project management and user centred design.
Along with that there will also be a process defined for rolling this kind of capability out across the organisation, using internal expertise rather than bought in training. Hopefully this means that the learning activity will be scalable and sustainable, and most importantly of all, everyone will know why they are doing it.
Do you need a digital engagement strategy to get it right? Perhaps you don’t, but it can’t not help, surely.
Start with a vision. What do we want to achieve? Where do we want to end up? Pick an arbitrary date in the future – say 2015 – and imagine how you’d like things to be done then. What steps to get there?
One way I’d look at it would be that with budgets under lots of pressure, a digital by default (or design) approach has a load of advantages for organisations. You won’t reach everyone online, but you will get to plenty of people in a cost effective way.
Next, think organisationally. We want everyone we work with to get the benefit of this new digital way of working! How can we achieve that? It might be by having digital enthusiasts in each department talking regularly to their colleagues about how putting information and opening up services online can help improve things and make them more efficient.
Think about how having lots of people on Twitter and Facebook might affect the organisation. What training might they need? How can we know about all the profiles and pages that have been set up? How can you support people to keep up the momentum, or to help them make the right response to a question? How to help them not cock something up and get the organisation into hot water – or how to get them out of trouble if they do?
Consider breaking down activity into different types, such as having business-as-usual digital activity (ie ongoing), digital campaigns (ie time limited) and the difference between communicating, engaging and collaborating.
Now, write this stuff up on a sheet of paper. It shouldn’t take more than a side of A4. Show it to your boss, their boss, the chief exec. Get the most senior person you can to endorse it.
Start doing stuff yourself. Play with some tools. Find which ones work for you in your role, and for your team and service area. Monitor responses, successful interactions, not so successful interactions. Get your colleagues involved, ask them to cover for you when you’re on holiday, or off sick. Then encourage them to do their own thing once they realise it’s really not that bad. It’s actually fun!
Next, identify the willing. Find those digital enthusiasts, show them your bit of paper and the signature on it. Get them to show it to their bosses, and their bosses. Do talks at team meetings about it. Show people what you’ve been doing and how it worked. Tell them what went wrong and how you fixed it.
Get your digital enthusiasts to meet up every so often to share experience and stories. Maybe have an online community of practice so you can keep discussions going, even when you’re not in the same room. Encourage them, support them, cajole them, replace them when they leave.
Show other teams your community of practice. Show them how they could have one too, to share their learning, experience and problems with one another.
Revisit your strategy. Are you closer to achieving those goals? Is the organisation becoming more digital? Is the use of online tools for communication, engagement and service delivery becoming embedded in lots of people’s working lives?
What needs to change? What could be improved? Change it. Improve it.
Make it happen.
Need help getting the skills and knowledge to make this stuff a reality? Check out our online Successful Digital Engagement course now!.