..”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.
I get wheeled in on occasion to offer advice or help with activities that seem to touch on some element of the broad topic of product management. I recently did a bit of a brain dump for a potential client on some of the techniques I have used to get things started – to make sure the foundations are solid enough to launch something ambitious.
Insights from Professor Alan Brown
Alan Brown is Professor in Digital Economy at the University of Exeter’s Business School. Alan’s research is focused on agile approaches to business transformation, and the relationship between technology innovation and business innovation in today’s rapidly-evolving digital economy. He is a long standing adviser to the Notbinary board and clients.
Come so far - got so far to go
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report into Digital Government is an interesting read. I agree with a lot of it. More does need to be done to really get a handle on legacy technologies across the Government estate.