There are no digital silver bullets

In a fairly complex world, everyone yearns for a simple solution. The one thing they should do to make things better. The single solution to all their problems. Digital transformation is no different, and many of the marketers working in this space know it – that’s why they usually claim that their ‘platforms’ will deliver everything an organisation needs to change itself for the digital age.

Sometime people read a single solution into things when it isn’t there. A good example would be my post the other day talking about the uses of low code platforms. Several people got in touch questioning my assertion that it was the answer to all of local government’s problems. I replied pointing out that it wasn’t my assertion, and low code won’t fix everything. It might help for quite a few things though.

Overall, I am always very nervous of transformation programmes that have a single view of the operating model of an organisation, particularly when we are talking local government, which delivers such a bewildering array of services that it would surely be impossible to have just one way of changing and organising them all. Are there really that many similarities between running a theatre and processing benefits? Or picking up waste and community development?

Instead, part of laying the foundations of an approach to digital transformation should be developing an openness to trying new tools, techniques and technology, and an awareness of all the possibilities that are out there.

On the tools and techniques side, this means having a really good knowledge of ways of doing human centred design, innovation and delivery. Check out IDEO’s resources on this, along with the 100% Open toolkit, and of course the GDS service manual.

For technology, really consider the capabilities needed to deliver the outcome your users and your organisation want to achieve. See if you can match those to what you already have, but don’t shoe-horn them in. Think about the maturity of the capability you need: if it is really cutting edge, you may need to build it yourself (whether in-house or outsourced); for everything else there ought to be something on the market to suit. Whatever you do, don’t get bogged down trying to build silver bullets – a universal case management system for everything, or some kind of middleware utopia that makes everything talk to everything else. You’ll end up tying yourself into knots and running a huge IT programme, which is nobody’s idea of fun.

As I said, by all means re-use capabilities wherever you can. It might be that you do end up using one case management system for everything, because it works. Great! But find your way there by iteratively re-designing your way through services, matching capabilities to outcomes, and not through the implementation of a grand technology project.

So is there an operating model that can be applied to everything an organisation does? Probably not.

Is there a change process that can be applied to every service you deliver? Probably not.

Is there a technology platform that will enable you to replace every other system currently in use? Probably not.

Should you try things out, find some alignment between the outcome you want to achieve and the stuff you use to get there? Probably, yes.

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

How low (code) can you go?

There’s an increasing amount of talk in digital circles about low code. These are systems for building systems: ways of using simple drag and drop interfaces to build out workflows and databases to deliver business processes. Some low code platforms of note include Matssoft, Mendix and Outsystems amongst many. There are also a number of more traditional forms and workflow packages that market themselves as low code – whether they are or not I’m never entirely sure. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

At Adur & Worthing, Paul introduced Matssoft. The team there has built a range of apps, including ones handling HR processes, waste services, asset management, FOI and complaints handling, and a range of housing services. There’s details on Paul’s blog, and it is a great example of how a corporate commitment to a new way of building software to deliver services can see real improvements and innovation.

One of the marketing messages many low code vendors like to trot out is that around the idea of being able to do away with developers. Having managed a rollout of low code and attempted various projects myself, I am not convinced of that. I’m reasonably tech savvy, and yet have never personally been able to build a functioning bit of software with a low  code platform. My brain just isn’t wired in the right way. Largely this is because, at a fundamental level, most low code is a front end to a database, and designing databases well is a skill, if not an art.

So I don’t think low code is a way for organisations to dispense with developers. Instead, it can change what developers do, and speed up the process of getting ideas made into working software. They are especially useful, I think, at the beginning of a transformation programme, perhaps when one is looking for some pilot projects to prototype approaches and methods. Buying handful of licences for a low code platform and churning out a few apps saves a lot of bother compared to procuring some heavy IT designed for some future model that may or may not ever happen.

Low code, in my view, is best suited as a way of quickly building out bespoke workflows that don’t fit easily into an existing line of business system or platform.

For example, most organisations are chock full of spreadsheets and databases (whether made in Access, or a Visual Basic/SQL server concoction) doing small but vital pieces of work. These are often stored in network drives and digital or IT teams may not even be aware of their existence. They also don’t have the advantage of being cloud native apps, with reduced capability when it comes to mobility, usability on a range of devices and can have a high maintenance overhead.

So overall I am a supporter of low code and encourage organisations to explore how it can help consolidate that morass of unknown Excel and Access based workflows into a more modern, usable and less risky platform. But don’t expect necessarily to be replacing big line of business systems overnight, nor saving money by reducing your developer headcount.

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

LINK: “Broken words and why they matter”

Digital – as a word – is broken. We have slapped it onto the front of two many old world applications in an attempt to normalise and ‘make safe’ new concepts that at this point saying something is digital is a bit like saying water is wet

Original: http://www.curiouscatherine.info/2018/04/15/broken-words-and-why-they-matter/

Be your own best customer to advance your transformation

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.

Photo credit: Jomjakkapat Parrueng on Unsplash

Two blockers to radical (digital) change

I was asked this morning for the two main blockers to progress in the various attempts at technology enabled change over the years, whether titled e-government or digital transformation.

Here’s what I came up with – it would be interesting to get your thoughts:

Two main challenges for me would be two elements of core capability. The first would be technology, and specifically software. The main line of business systems in use in most local councils is simply not fit for purpose for the digital age. They are horrible to use, don’t interoperate, work poorly on mobile, don’t offer great customer experience for self service and are dogs for the IT team to maintain. Time and time again, otherwise excellent initiatives at e-government or digital transformation are scuppered because of issues relating to core back office systems. What’s more, the market seems to find it impossible to have an impact on the situation, and so driving the incumbents out is very hard to do.

Second, and possibly more important, are the people issues. First is culture, which is risk and change averse, often because of the role of middle managers, many of whom are ‘experts’ in their service area and extremely dedicated to preserving the current way of doing things. Folk on the front line can often easily diagnose problems and suggest solutions, and senior executives are usually well up for a bit of disruptive change. However those in the middle can slow things down and block progress. The other bit of the people problem is capability, in that there aren’t enough really good people around in organisations to drive the change needed forward, which takes guts and stamina as well as intelligence. Without a reasonably sized army of these people in place, initiatives can get run into the ground very quickly.

Blogged elsewhere: Why tech SMEs are Crucial to Public Sector Digital Transformation

I was asked by my friends at AdviceCloud to write something for the TechUK blog about how small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can support public sector organisations in their efforts to transform.

Technology is not the be-all and end-all of digital transformation. However, any organisation looking to disrupt itself in this way must have a sufficiently flexible technology stack to support the radical change that is needed – and tech SMEs are in the perfect place to deliver what digital transformation demands.

Read the whole thing on the TechUK website.

 

Five for Friday (29/9/17)

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Five for Friday took a little break for a month or so while I settled into my new job(s). If I’m honest, I am still not completely settled – it takes time getting used to a little portfolio having concentrated on a single role for several years – but I am getting there.

Enjoy the links.

  • Mapping service design and policy design – terrific post by Andrea Siodmok on how service design and policy design meet. Quite a lot of the focus on digital transformation misses out the policy element, and understanding what an organisation’s approach to an issue, and why it has that approach, is vital to defining services that deliver the intended outcome.
  • Digital transformation, or digital fossilisation? – good stuff from Andrew Larner talking about the need to use the opportunity of digital transformation to address big strategic issues around the manner in which organisations operate – not just hard baking inefficient and user unfriendly processes using new technology.
  • Defining Aggregators – you are probably bored of me banging on about Ben Thompson and how good he is, but this is another great piece, pulling together his recent thinking on digital operating models, diving deep into the concept of the aggregator. Now, the aggregator model might not be a good fit for public services, but it’s a great way to get thinking about this operating model malarky.
  • Designing for democracyCatherine Howe applies the ladder of participation model to designing services in the digital age. Making this activity democratic involves the political, of courses, and also links up with Andrea’s post linked to above, where understanding the political and policy context is vital to achieving desired outcomes. There’s loads and loads in here (like does an iterative approach mean the big picture can get missed?) and it needs a good read and mull.
  • YC’s Essential Startup Advice – always take stuff like this with a pinch of salt (one shouldn’t ignore the pervasive Silicon Valley ideology that startups will save the world) but there’s some really good advice in here about launching new services. Much of it focuses on keeping things small and not worrying about scale until you know you have a thing that enough people like to require scale.

As always, these have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

You can also sign up to get them delivered to you by email, if that’s your thing.

Five for Friday (11/8/17)

I took a week off doing this last week – the shame! – so apologies for that*. A good crop this time round though. Enjoy!

  • Tom Steinberg asks Why even bother with a user centred, digital government? and it’s a very interesting question. We spend a lot of time wondering what such a thing might look like, but without understanding why you’re doing it life can  get very tricky. Tom’s answer is based around achieving compassion, fairness, the value of government itself, respect and transparency. Matt Jukes has posted his response to the question as well, in typically thoughtful style, adding empowerment to the list.
  • An update on Government as a Platform (GaaP) progress at GDS gives a chance to discuss some of this stuff, including the opening up of the Notify service to local government, and the additonal capability for Notify to allow for inbound text messaging and the sending out of postal letters. Now, I wrote about GaaP a little while ago, and having just reread it, I’m not entirely happy about it (bit too tech-focused). The general issue I have with this area of work is that it seems to have leapt straight into the tech capabilities part, without thinking through the platform operating model bit first. The more specific issue with the way this is being done is in the re-writing of what are pretty common, commodity components. These things already exist! Why does local government need another way to send people emails, text messages or (FFS!) letters? Surely it would have been quicker, easier and cheaper to curate a suite of existing, well supported, easily configurable and interoperable components that could be used lego block style to build out services? Maybe there’s something here I’m just not getting.
  • ‘Digital Transformation’ Is a Misnomer – is a great articulation about the problems of language and how they impede progress. I’ve a post in the process of percolation on this topic at the moment, however it’s worth saying that people’s understanding of terms is based as much on their own experience as it is commonly accepted definitions. In other words (ha!) no single expression is ever going to work as a shorthand that everybody gets first time. This whole thing is made harder by the efforts of vendor marketing departments who like to badge whatever they do with whatever the fashionable term is at the time. My approach is to choose the right language for your organisation and stick with it, and rather than focus on specific definitions, work on using them as symbols to represent the thing you’re trying to get across. Otherwise you are doomed to never get past the first slide of the deck you’re writing for that important meeting.
  • If I could tell you 3 things – notes from a brief career in the public service – really nice reflective piece from Leisa Reichelt. All three of her things come from being user focused in one’s work, which is telling. It’s very easy to talk the talk on user needs but actually doing it is hard and requires constant vigiliance.
  • GDS Isn’t Working – Part 5 (No Vision, No Ambition) – an excoriating post from Alan Mather, continuing his series analysing government transformation efforts of the last few years. It’s not perfect – I can’t help but get the feeling that Alan needs to let the Gateway go… – but it’s a great challenge to not just the current central government strategy but also for anybody working on this stuff in their own organisations.

As always, these have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

* although nobody complained…

Five for Friday (28/7/17)

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While you wonder where on earth the sun has gone (and I don't mean from the accurate depiction of the solar system above) here are some interesting things to read.

  • There are many tech roles going at Guildford Borough Council – take a look and best of luck if you go for one. If you're on the lookout for a job, don't forget Jukesie's email list.
  • Eleven exercises for more efficient, productive, and creative meetings – a few years ago my son asked me what I did at work. I wittered on a bit about digital, strategy and running a service; but he interrupted me and asked what I actually physically did. I had to answer that I read and wrote emails, and that I went to meetings. The second thing would be much improved if I started making use of some of the ideas in this article.
  • Businesses are using 'digital transformation' purely for marketing purposes, says Co-Op CDO Mike Bracken – there's a nice summary in here on why transformation isn't about merely digitising existing processes but taking a harder look at operating models and culture. Bracken identifies three barriers – first that changing culture is really hard, second that leadership views digital just as better IT, and third (as it says in the headline) that some organisations just use the D word for meaningless marketing.
  • GDS wants IT suppliers to use its GaaP products – but won’t offer service guarantees – interesting take on the Governmant as a Platform programme at GDS and hints at some of the difficulties involved in creating new capabilities rather than consuming them from the market. Supporting products is really hard, particularly in the 'enterprise' environment where expectations are high.
  • The GDS Academy is here – a more positive GDS story. The DWP digital academy has been given a makeover and now is the GDS Academy. Having a consistent way of delivering good quality learning to folk on the important bits of what digital is all about is one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw for many organisations and this is one of the few attempts to get it done at scale.

As always, these have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

How much does your technology define what you do?

A fairly quick thought this, but one than keeps occurring to me. It feels like a self evident truth that the technology an organisation uses should follow that organisation’s purpose, and not the other way around, but I wonder how often that is actually the case?

I’d argue that for many organisations, with legacy infrastructure and applications that have been in use for many years, technology is defining the way they run.

This is because the technology locks in ways of working, the design of a service, perhaps even the entire operating model of the organisation.

I’ve been involved in many projects in the past where radical redesign of services was scuppered because the technology wasn’t flexible enough to deliver the new vision.

So while it is vital to rethink how services are delivered and how the organisation works, sometimes you need to fix the technology first to enable that change to happen.