..”it is all about people.”

Or sometimes culture. Or occasionally organisational design.

When we aren’t arguing about whether or not ‘digital transformation’ is a useful term or not (or whether ‘everybody is a designer’) we are making the case that ‘digital’ (whatever that might mean) is not about technology – it is about the people.

I have certainly been a proponent of this idea. I’ve given talks where it is a prominent theme and if I am known for anything these days it is probably my opinions on the importance of improving hiring in public service because talent makes a difference like few other things.

I do believe it.

Except it really is still about technology as well. We have overdone it on the course correction. Gone from one extreme (tech for techs sake) to a new dogma – a people problem where technology is a distraction.

My favourite definition of digital is from Tom Loosemore and is as follows;

Applying the culture, processes, business models & technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

The bold text is by me.

The internet is at its heart a technology. If we are going to apply those new cultures, processes and business models we need people who understand the technology. What it is capable of. What is snake oil. What you shouldn’t do with it!

Leaps in technology provide opportunities and risks. Richard Pope wrote a great post on this very topic three years ago (which honestly I probably should just link to and leave it at that) but in that post he said;

If you don’t understand the materials you are working with, you can’t build the right thing, even if you go about it in the right way.

..on the flip side of this

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should


..and it is much easier to make those decisions if you have people who understand things (lets be clear though – it takes more than that – just today there was the case of the Superhuman email app built by super smart technologists that was basically a privacy nightmare and stalkers best friend!).

There are real, hard, deep technology issues that need resolving if everything else that gets done in the name of ‘digital’ is going to stick. The Ministry of Justice have been great at sharing some of these challenges and their approach to building solid foundations and GDS are providing great guidance on how to make modern moves to better understand and learn from data and these activities don’t always fit into a users first, service design driven narrative.

There are also new technologies emerging all the time – and while I am the first to pour cold water on any discussion that starts with ‘innovation’ in the email invite – there is no doubt that ‘machine learning’ and ‘automation’ is going to change things and provide new opportunities and problems – and we need people who understand these concepts beyond the superficial – knowing ‘just enough to be dangerous’ is real.

I am, as they say, a ‘people person’. I believe attracting and retaining great people is what will change public service for the better. I believe 100% in putting users first and have seen the power of great service design. I just think we need to start acknowledging that it is also all a technology problem. It is eight years since Marc Andreessen said;

Software is eating the world.

..and the reality is that it is on dessert now – pretty close to finishing the meal. The internet and software touches every corner of our world and any effort to turn a blind eye to this is as ill advised as the older gentleman ranting in Greggs this morning about their ‘click and collect’ service to the bemused young woman serving him.

So this is a plea for a bit of balance.

Because it can be about people and technology.

It’s Notbinary.


Image of Guy Saward

Guy Saward

Posted on 13th July, 2019:

Interested to see you saying it's all about the internet - does this mean the tech or the people?! Though the obvious answer is "both".

I'm showing my age, but it's worth going back to the whole web 2.0 thing. The original O'Reilly post talks about both too - user generated content and people as publishers
- open tech platforms to promote sharing

It's easy for people to confuse the two and think it's all about the people, or it's all about the tech when in reality it's both.

But fwiw, I think the more important of the two is the people and the attitude to sharing. I see lots of young people who don't understand the tech, nor the implications of what they are sharing! So much for digital natives!

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