England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Personal and organisational development, Technology

Why leaders need to understand digital – and what they really need to know


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Folk in all sectors are being constantly bombarded with instructions to digitally transform their organisations, or calls to digitise services, and to make use of the cloud.

With all these meaningless exhortations, it’s easiest just to ignore them. After all, isn’t this the sort of thing that our IT departments are hired to worry about on our behalf? It’s just computers and software, and dealing with technology is just operational detail!

Well… no, not really. It’s actually absolutely vital that those in leadership positions in councils, whether they be politicians or officers, understand the potential and the pitfalls of embarking on a large-scale digital change programme.

Technology for technology’s sake can lead organisations down the wrong path very easily. That is what makes it so important that leaders provide a vision and understand how that vision is enabled by digital and IT. It’s too important to be left to the technologists!

Digital is fundamentally not just about taking services and putting them online – a classic case of doing the wrong thing righter. Digital is also not guaranteed to save you money. It can save money – but only when it is done well, and that users are happy to take up your new digital services.

Good digital transformation happens when leaders grasp three strategic principles:

Firstly, that digital transformation is in response to people’s raised expectations. Those expectations have been raised by almost everything that has happened to the organisations they interact with, no matter what the sector, in the last decade or so.

People can now open bank accounts on their phones, without needing to speak to a human being or use a pen at any stage. They can set up limited companies in the same way, and tax their cars. Their shopping is done online, they watch television via the internet and they communicate with friends, family and colleagues using voice, text and video on a bewildering variety of apps.

And yet, when it comes to their local council, sometimes they still need to download PDF forms, print them out, fill them in and post them back. It still takes days or weeks to get decisions or responses. And all of this is true for the staff working in councils, too. They get as fed up with all the printing, scanning, copying, rekeying and general inefficiency as anyone else.

We have seen the pace at which councils can embrace digital workflows through the pandemic, and that has given both staff and citizens more than a glimpse of what could be.

Meeting these raised expectations is key to the success of digital transformation. You have to meet the needs of your users first. If everything you do in digital is to save money, you will likely end up with digital services that nobody wants to use, and that will result in failure and more expense. Instead, put the user front and centre, design around them, and the organisational benefits will surely follow.

Second, one of the key changes that taking a truly digital approach will make in your organisation is cultural. An organisation cannot succeed in digital transformation with the same culture it has always had. What does this look like?

The culture of the internet age is open. It rewards those that share and collaborate. Think about Wikipedia – an entire encyclopedia written by people giving up their knowledge and time for free. It’s a remarkable achievement, and yet we barely even think about it these days. Likewise, almost the entire internet is built upon software that has been shared openly, often for no cost, with volunteers of all descriptions contributing to fixing bugs and adding functionality. Modern organisations need to operate in similar ways.

The culture is also agile – by which I do not mean hotdesking, or working from home. Agile is a way of delivering work, by focusing on getting products in a usable state as quickly as possible, letting users loose upon it, and then iterating based on feedback. It focuses on starting small and growing from there, and by reducing risk by failing – if you must fail – early, and cheaply. This is in contrast to traditional approaches to technology projects, that see long specifications drawn up, teas disappearing for months or years to implement them, only to re-emerge into a world that has moved on, or one that doesn’t like their interpretation of those requirements.

These are just two examples of digital culture. There are many more, and when put into effect they create happy, well functioning working environments.

Third, that whilst digital can apply to new technology, the real impact is being seen in operating models. AirBnB is a global hotel chain with no hotels. Uber is a worldwide taxi service that owns no cars. Facebook, the world’s most popular media entity, creates no content. This sounds strange, and yet it is true.

This is because these companies have been designed for the internet age. The way they deliver their products and services is predicated on the existence of the internet, and the fact that the vast majority of people can access it pretty much anywhere, and anywhen. Technology enables this, but the genius lies in the way the companies adapt the way they work to fit the new world that the technology has helped to create. After all, Netflix didn’t beat Blockbuster because they had a nicer website – they won because their operating model suited a world where people didn’t need to drive to a shop to rent something to watch.

So what would your services look like if they were designed from scratch, today, by people taking as a foundation that the internet exists? Imbue that vision with the public service ethos to ensure the most vulnerable are still catered for, and you have a plan for really transformative digital work.

Summing up

The really important bits about digital then are not about technology at all, but instead about focusing on people’s needs and expectations, changing your culture, and redesigning your operating models. Digital can deliver savings, but not if that is the overriding consideration above all others, and not if the work is considered an IT project.

Aspirations, culture and operating model design are led from the top – and that’s where you come in.

If you’d like to know more about all of this, then sign up for the online workshop I will be running with LGIU in November. In just two hours, you’ll get to understand what you really need to know about digital.

This week’s Global Local Recap is all about smart cities and digital improvement.

Dave Briggs is a freelance consultant helping local public services improve and innovate using digital and technology. Find out more at sensibletech.co.uk.


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