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The Digital Organisation

20 Oct 2016

| Author: Rob Smith

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The Digital Organisation

Earlier in October, I presented at the annual Memberwise Conference, Harnessing the Web 2016. The main theme of the presentation was that although many organisations now transact successfully online, many have merely replicated traditional paper-based processes.  As such they are not maximising the opportunity offered by the internet.

Being digital and becoming more Agile in approach, is not simply about systems, it’s the way we think and work. Organisations that want to remain relevant and be fit for the future need to change. This is something recognised by Gartner in its Pace Layer Model, and Bimodal IT.

But what needs to change?

Culture

Organisational culture needs to change to embrace digital and recognise the benefits it can proffer. This is not an easy task, particularly given that many of the change agents within a traditional organisation are not Digital Natives. 

The change should be both bottom-up and top-town, and making use of Agile principles is a key enabler of such change. It is essential to seed teams with new staff who “get” digital, but more importantly it is essential that the need and value of change is communicated and supported by the executive management team. As Mark O’Neil, formerly of Government Digital Services, put it, “The [government] departments where we were most successful in achieving cultural change were those that had a clear strategic objective with articulated benefits.” This correlates perfectly with my own experiences supporting Agile transformations and programmes of change within organisations such as the AAT and YHA.

The other changes can be seen as subsets of cultural change but warrant calling out.

Governance

Simply put, you don’t need all of the answers before commencing change. Test ideas and recognise learning (not failure).

This is a significant and difficult change for many organisations. We all have been conditioned over a lifetime to plan in detail before commencing a project in order to fix a budget and business case. Digital organisations have a more flexible funding process, which provides for umbrella-funding that can be drawn down as more is understood about the best way to achieve the objectives and derive value. 

Of course, some planning needs to take place but it does not have to answer everything – as planning horizons lengthen, there will be less detail in the plan. Incremental planning, a common change in thinking for organisations transforming to Agile, reflects this shift. 

Be prepared to change

We are not good at accepting we’re wrong. We have an idea, we test it but it’s not easy to change direction, particularly if that requires a total volte-face.

On a personal level, I have many examples of this. I once walked five miles along the Thames in the wrong direction, trying to work out why the river appeared to be flowing east-west. So convinced was I that I’d taken the correct route from Marlow, I was simply not prepared to accept I might be wrong, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

We see many examples of this within projects, on a significantly larger scale. Once a commitment has been made to a particular course, it is easier to continue rather than change, regardless of what we are learning along the way. 

Mature organisations are prepared to stop and restart, and have executive management support for this approach. As discussed above, learning is regarded as a good thing, and not failure.

Measure and trust empirical evidence

This one seems obvious but for many it is not. Within government the role of User Researcher has recently risen to prominence as a way of providing discipline to the approach. We all have our own ideas about what works and what is best but the only way to be sure is to test ideas, observe behaviours, talk to users, and measure.

A couple of years ago, I attended a Digital Steering Meeting at a prominent organisation, in which the Chief Exec commented, “I don’t want us to send any HTML emails. I don’t like them and never read them”. A debate ensued, with polar views presented; eventually it was cut short by the CIO, who reached into his dashboard and proclaimed, “12% of text emails are opened, compared to 34% for HTML.” QED.

Welcome new skills and new talent

Finally, organisations have to accept that they will need new skills and new talent. If you want to be a digital and fundamentally Agile organisation, employ some Digital Natives. Not just at delivery level but also at executive level. If you really want to change, you have to be prepared for change.

If your organisation is looking for support in its journey to becoming a truly digital organisation, we can help – please get in touch.

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Author

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Rob Smith

Joint founder of IndigoBlue in July 2002, Rob has over 20 years’ experience in IT, and in addition to leading the company he continues to provide strategic management consultancy to a number of clients.

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