Got A Digital Challenge? – What Would Ray Do?

I was invited to a panel debate recently about whether the public sector has the capacity and skills to embrace ‘digital’. It’s an important topic and you can argue both ways (which always makes for a good debate!). I was asked to argue in favour (i.e., yes, we do have the potential capability) – and we lost the vote at the end after an impassioned discourse!

Here are my thoughts. You can make up your own mind….

It always strikes that, when something new like ‘digital’ comes along, the public sector tends to want to buy in the answer. We sometimes seem to lack the confidence in our ability and our existing talent to grow or develop in the face of challenge. This is not universally true, and many public organisations have proven able to adapt as fast as anywhere in the private sector, especially recently.

As an analogy, the public sector are in Ray Mear’s territory.. suddenly shipwrecked in an alien country, without enough to eat and some pretty hungry predators around – the demographic time bomb, social care demands, customer expectation rising, new technology, cuts to budgets… But I reckon Ray wouldn’t start by parachuting in some advisors to save us (although some rations would be welcome!). He would advocate creativity, hard work, managing and assessing risk, quick reactions and adaptability as the route to survival.

That doesn’t mean we should not be taking advice from both public and private sector experts and sharing best practice. Indeed, that is essential if we are to respond quickly and at the same time manage risks of change. But every business is getting on the digital bandwagon and the fares are going up as everyone clamours to attract the best talent. We need to be judicious about how we source and externalise our digital capacity, using external expertise to support and grow our own teams for the future.

I remember the IT revolution of the 1980s. Many existing IT departments were considered too inflexible (and many were) so we outsourced. By the 1990s we were able to start to embark on a swathe of exciting new IT projects, especially in the public sector.. which, during the 1990s and early 2000s often crashed and burned in a spectacular public display. We wrongly believed that simply buying in the technology answers would be faster, cheaper, more innovative and lower risk. Sometimes it was true, but too often the fastest, most successful, cleverest and lowest cost delivery programmes were by the in-house teams where they proved themselves to be able to truly adapt – as repeated SOCITM surveys have shown.

This does not mean we all need to run our own IT departments and datacentres, or that outsourcing cannot work. Nor does it imply that we already have the right culture, capacity or capacity to do ‘digital’ without outside help (we don’t). Smaller organisations in particular will increasingly struggle to justify and sustain in-house IT provision and will need to join forces with others. But we should be under no illusion that technology and now ‘digital’, are strategic, not commodities. This is especially true in the public sector, where the complexity, pace of change, scale, diversity and unpredictability of requirements is greater than much of the private sector. Misunderstanding this has been the downfall of the savings (and profits) or many an IT-enabled ‘transformation’ programme.

‘Digital services’ require a different model for the design and the delivery of services. For the public sector ‘digital’ (if done well), is probably the nearest thing to a ‘silver bullet’ which can reduce cost whilst improving improve services and enabling sharing. Yet done badly, the reverse is true – higher costs, disenfranchised customers and IT seen as a barrier to joining things up.

It is the risk and uncertainty, coupled with the size of potential benefits, which sometimes result in ‘digital’ being spoken of in reverential terms. We want ‘digital leaders’ to take us safely to digital nirvana; ‘entrepreneurial innovators’, gifted leaders, aged under 25 years, but with 20 years of ‘hard-bitten’ delivery experience. Digital is “the ectoplasm of technology”.

Yet when it comes down to it, the success or failure of digital is more about culture than it is the technology and its more about collective action than it is vested in a single revolutionary or adventurer, such as a CDO or CIO. It needs a collaborative corporate culture with a willingness to change, high-levels of creativity, good risk and change management skills and above all a team that can help bridge the gap between technology opportunity and business need.

So whilst we are going to need a lot of external help along the way, we also need to equip ourselves for long-term fundamental change. We must therefore build on the potential of the talent we have, a talent which knows the business and the challenges we face and which has often already proved able to deliver some of the best, most efficient and the most imaginative services in any sector.


So You Want a Career Change to IT?

IT offers a hugely diverse and varied career option, pretty much catering for all interests. It’s so much more than the common view of ‘programming and technology’. We need more people in the IT profession, with a wider range of backgrounds and skills.

So the first thing is to consider in looking at the option of career move to IT is what sort of roles might suit you best.

There are of course a wide range of technical specialisms, requiring some of the cleverest people designing systems and security for example. Competition for these roles is high but supply is also limited and there are some great training programme available, for example from the British Computer Society (BCS). But there are many other types of IT roles – sales and marketing, project and programme management, training and eLearning, account management, business analysis, IT help and support, strategy planning – and more. These require a mix of different personal and technical skills and experience, so you need to consider what you like doing and what you are good at. The top IT leaders typically are hybrid types, strong on communications, politics and strategy, but with a solid technical knowhow.

It’s also worth noting that a career in IT is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a fast past and often tough role, with few places to hide. On the other hand it is fun, creative and increasingly central to every business and service organisation, with remuneration to match.

My advice would be to decide what your motivation are for a career change and why IT is for you – it should not be about the money, for example. And don’t be concerned about starting at the bottom and working up – experience on a help desk for example can accelerate your IT career as you get a good understanding of the technology, how to solve IT problems and knowledge of the wider business which IT is there to serve. And my other pierce of advice would be to build your contacts – get to know people in the industry and ask for support and input, use LinkedIn for example, and join the BCS.


‘Digital’ – the new Millennium Bug?

Complex organisations have to make their technology work harder and in new ways in order to support the pace of change and to deliver greater efficiency. In the private sector the pressure comes from global competition, customer expectations and new market entrants. In the public sector, financial pressures and the need to join up services to respond to growing and changing public demands require new models of delivery.

IT will lie at the heart of this, but simply using ‘more IT’ and labelling that investment ‘digital’ is not the answer (and is not doing ‘IT’ any favours). Without some more basic things changing, ‘digital’ will become the new ‘millennium bug’ – a lot of over-selling of the need to spend more on IT, based on hype, fear, uncertainty and doubt.

By all means create a CDO position and encourage IT enabled transformation and self-service. However, don’t overlook the need for a vision and agreed strategy that defines the importance of digitisation for all parts of the business. This will almost certainly include commonality of technology design principles, as well as greater standardisation of tools, security, identity management and integration – for staff, customers and supplier access. But that won’t be nearly enough to make a real difference to competitiveness, efficiency or customer service.

For example, optimised departmental systems which in the past have duplicated common processes, have proved to be poor value for money and unsustainable. Yet so many technologists (and more understandably suppliers) think a move to digital starts with a look at how we source IT – which suppliers to use, which tools and ‘apps’, open source vs. proprietary, how much to spend on IT, new IT service contracts. In my view this completely (and dangerously) misses the point. We need to stop buying more IT and think first about how we want to operate, resisting the desire to acquire, tailor and customise tools to support processes designed around individual departmental or customer service needs.

This is a seismic cultural change within the IT function and across the business. We have spent over two decades saying the IT must be responsive to each and every business need… and often we’ve won awards for that over-engineering! We now need to abandon the mantra that ‘we must be led by business, not by IT’ – in a digital world IT is the business and it must deliver automation, self-service and empowered employees, suppliers and customers, without creating multiple different ways of doing common things.

It’s a new business model, especially with regard to business risk. It is one which recognises the role of IT, but more importantly on individual decision making, with less hierarchical ‘command and control’ management practices. It depends on rigour and discipline from the top to the bottom of the organisation in adopting standard practices, yet encourages individual responsibility and accountability to act quickly, make the right judgments and be trusted to do so.

IT must help us to move quickly from ‘clunky’ and unintuitive back office systems, to modern and flexible tools. Tools which allow all employees, suppliers and customers to access intuitively designed systems, on the move, from anywhere, at any time, with any device and with real time transaction processing (no management, admin, and ‘return to the office’ intervention required). It needs a fully layered and integrated technology platform upon which digital solutions are implemented, whilst supporting legacy applications .. but it is more about process, governance and culture, than it is about the technology per se.


Horsemeat and BYOD

Horsemeat and BYOD


Two years ago I was predicting that Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) would become common place in work environments.  Most of us don’t think twice about using our own car for business journeys and your personal smartphone, tablet or home PC is just a tool to do a job. 


I know there is a difference of course – accessing corporate information and systems means that your device becomes a key to the corporate vaults.  But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t and cannot be done with due care and attention.


In two years, over 80% of businesses now have some form of BYOD to support mobile working. In fact, many employees now use multiple devices: having a phone, a tablet and a home PC is increasingly typical, all able to access work as well as personal data. The trend is unstoppable because it benefits both the employer and the employee. The employee gets flexibility, choice of device, work/life balance and convenience.  The employer gets increasing productivity at relatively little cost. Try and stop BYOD and you disenfranchise and disenchant employees, as well as risking potential competiveness.


At the heart of the debate is not flexible working, work/life balance, or nature of device supported.  It is about freedom versus security, and as in all freedoms the right balance between these two needs to be found. That will depend on business circumstances.  Alarmingly, of the organisations reporting BYOD adoption, a significant number apparently do not yet have the technical security controls or policies in place to ensure corporate data is well protected. In the public sector the PSN Code of Connection is enforcing such discipline.


It is true that a relatively small proportion of security breaches are due to portable media bypassing corporate defences (a BWC survey in 2013 indicated 4% were security breaches due to portable devices), but the risk and the number of incidents are increasing, with nearly 10% of larger organisations suffering a security and data breach in the last 12 months involving smartphones and tablets. Wherever you look, data security risks are growing as the volume of data only available electronically grows. 


This is a serious challenge for CIOs.  Vulnerabilities need to be carefully analysed (based on an assessment of impact x likelihood) and risks mitigated through a combination of technology protection, appropriate business practices and good personal habits.  For example, apps on mobile devices can actually help to reduce data security breaches, but only if they are deployed in a managed and structured way, with the user following common sense and good practice.


There is an analogy of the food industry such as the recent horsemeat scare.  We have technologies such as fridges and chemicals to help minimise food contamination, and complex processes to manage the food chain.  But process is more important – sourcing food from recognised suppliers, keeping raw and cooked food separately, keeping check of use by dates.  And above all, the biggest risk is people – washing hands, following the process and not taking short cuts, are all critical in food hygiene.


Bring Your Own Device and the corporate risks of security breaches are no different.  The technology should be in place to provide protection, the procedures and practices are more important still and above all it is personal responsibility and behaviours that will do most to protect the organisation.


The Myth of Technology Creating Leisure Time

I guess it depends on your perspective, but from the 1970s we have been told that IT would free us up to do more interesting things with our time by making us make us more productive and more efficient at work. IT promised to take away the ‘boring’ work, and yet at the same time make us richer.

For most of us this hasn’t happened. We are working longer hours and true wealth has not increased greatly. Granted, IT has and is creating wealth, efficiency and productivity, it has improved health, put dishwashers in our homes, given us mobile communication and much more choice generally. But it has also allowed us to do a lot of unnecessary things. Parkinson’s law applies – any spare time or opportunity which technology has created, we have immediately used. Hence for example there are over 200 million ‘tweets’ and about 4.5 billion ‘likes’ generated daily. And if we all got as much paper post as we now get email and texts at least some of us would not be able to open the front door on our return from work each day. You wonder how we survived 50 years ago.

The problem is the very fact that IT lets us do things that were not possible before .. so we do them, whether or not it is sensible, often not simplifying but complicating things. Worse, IT has allowed (made?) us operate ‘always on’ 24×7 and has fooled ourselves into thinking that multi-tasking is effective and putting us in control (scientific evidence shows some are better at this than others, but quality and reflection suffer).

Remember the Hi-Fi systems of the 1970s? All those lights, buttons and stacked units, with graphic equalisers which compensated for the size, shape and acoustics of your room? And we fell for it. IT is going through a similar phase, but as with Hi-Fi, simplicity will ultimately win – the most expensive Hi-Fi systems are now often the most simple – e.g. Denon, Bose, Bang and Olufsen.

IT is still in its infancy and we will become more mature in how to use it to enrich our lives (not just make us richer). That is how we will regain control. Social media use will be tempered and will certainly not replace real interaction, any more than TV and DVDs have replaced going to the theatre or a live concert. In the workplace IT use will also change from a ‘production line’ mentality to be a positive differentiator of business culture and work-life balance. For example, businesses will have to work harder to retain talent and flexible working enabled by IT will become critical as a differentiator, not just as a means to drive increased productivity. Faster data processing will be less important that effective information use in a knowledge-based economy.

Indeed, there is an argument that whilst the agricultural and industrial revolutions did away with menial tasks requiring lots of manpower, the IT revolution will do away with skilled jobs where judgement is needed. The prospect is of course a bit scary, but maybe we will then get the free time we all thirst for.


Claims of IT-enabled Business Transformation

A CIO who claims total responsibility for business transformation through IT is most likely lucky or fooling themselves (or others). Successful business transformation typically requires collective and collaborative action from different professional groups and teams, whether enabled by IT or not.

It is the role of the CIO to stimulate creative thinking about the ‘art of the possible’, to facilitate and to de-risk change underpinned by technology. But delivery requires co-production with service and business leaders – it’s not a ‘one-man-band’. Indeed, IT is often the easy bit, with the main challenge lying in cultural and process change.

The CIO’s experience of technology opportunity, programme management and business processes can help lead change and, above all, can create a common platform of standards, systems, infrastructure and shared electronic transactions which underpins delivery. But it needs joint working, often leading through others. That’s why the role of the best CIOs is as much political as it is technological.

So next time we update our CV let’s focus on the business enablement we have created, rather than claiming full-blooded, single-handed business transformation delivery.


Big Data, Little Data

CIOs should always be wary of IT strap lines like: cloud, big data, CRM, enterprise architecture, BYOD – those handy labels which often hide a myriad of practical challenges. It is these challenges which eventually come home to roost with the CIO and can lead to undeliverable policy and strategy ambitions … which in turn result in failed so-called ‘IT projects’ and loss of IT credibility.
Let’s take ‘big data’. Who can deny the attractiveness of being able to harness the power of the massive amounts of data we process, to drive better use of resources and improved targeting of services? Magic!

But ‘Big Data’ is certainly not new – Tesco introduced their first loyalty car in 1993 which was all about ‘big data’. Neither is it as easy as it sounds, typically requiring sophisticated information architecture in all but the simplest cases, bringing together data from various systems and sources. Any experienced CIO will know of the challenges there – data matching, data quality, systems integration, reporting tools and data currency, to name but a few. And chaos theory applies – i.e. a small data error or adjustment can lead, through association, to significant changes in information output and fundamentally incorrect diagnosis – so a range of clever sensitivity analyses and safety nets are required, along with interpretative skills.

Given 207tb of data is uploaded to YouTube every day alone, and apparently 90% of all data in the world has been generated in the last 2 years, if we are not careful the challenge of Big Data is just to keep pace, not to exploit information. Chasing the big picture is an arms race.

Yet the potential is clearly there, and data exploitation at scale can lead to competitive advantage through better customer insight, efficiency or business agility. And for public services it can for example, enable the needs and risks of vulnerable adults and children to be anticipated better and scarce resources deployed more surgically.

So in my view ‘Big Data’ is a journey, best taken in small steps. The challenge is to think SMALL not BIG – what specific data, if better connected, could indeed accelerate business advantage? That way you stand half a chance of not biting off more data and expectation than you can chew!