Braindump

Get this stuff out of my head.

UKGovCamp13

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A couple of weeks ago I attended another terrific UKGovCamp. Thanks need to go out to Steph, Dave, Lloyd and the army of GovCampers who make this very special event happen. Special points should go to this year’s hosts, IBM. Not only for a fantastic venue and bacon sandwiches for breakfast, but because so many of their staff turned out on a Saturday to take part in the event.

I had prepared in advance for the session I wanted to run, but preparatiom does not mean that you will actually get anybody interested in a session, unconferences can be a fickle mistress. So I was extremely pleased that after pitching ‘What are the blockers to innovation?’ I got such a amazing turn out.

My premise was to try and facilitate a conversation that got beyond the usual dead-ends of ‘but my organisation is risk averse’ or ‘the procurement department doesn’t understand Agile’. Not that these are not very valid points, but we do come to those conclusions (several times over) at every UKGovCamp/LocalGovCamp. I wanted to try and find the common underlying themes for innovation getting blocked and come up with some strategies for dealing with them. The room was still with me so I presented my ‘draft’ list of root causes:

  • Capacity - “we don’t have enough time/money/people”
  • Skills - “we don’t know how to do it”
  • Belief, buy-in and evidence - “we don’t think it will work”
  • Cultural - “we don’t do it like that here”
  • Political/political - “I don’t want that to happen”

To explore these root blockers I asked for the participants to come up with examples of where they have been encountered. Placing them into a root blocker category if they fitted and creating a new one if not. Unsurprising, there were plenty of examples, including: the use of paper based planning systems (cultural), project scope creep (political), adoption of iPads (fear - a new root blocker). Through this process the participants then added some more root causes of innovation blockage:

  • Fear/lose of control - “but something bad might happen”
  • Broken management - “that won’t help me achieve my KPIs”
  • Lack of benefit - “That won’t actually help”

But my objective for the session was not just to be able to enumerate all the ways in which ‘the system’ stops the great and talented folk at UKGovCamp from fixing everything, I wanted to work out ways in which we could address the blocks and actually move forward.

The conversation circled around some of our normal approaches to getting things done: persuasion, listening, collaborating and JFDI (which made me think of Tom Loosemore’s talk at Mind the Product early this year), we even covered rational argument and simply walking away to fight a different battle. But eventually we seem to arrive at a concrete conclusion.

It was Catherine Howe, who put it so succinctly. In order to remove or circumvent these blocks we need the energy, intellect and creativity of a network of people who are passionate about changing things for the better. We must build these networks to be open in attitude and make up. They should consist of people from across (and up and down) our organisations as well as from beyond the its boundaries. The only prerequisite to being part of the network should be an open, inquisitive mind.

A network can not only be applied to the major problem of changing an organisaiton’s culture, but simply by existing, it will change the culture. It will provide a place for new traditions and norms to establish themselves.

While this conclusion was not the ‘5 step plan to unblocking innovation’ I was half expecting, for me it is a far more practical solution. By concentrating on building a piece of infrastructure (the network) we create a capability that can adapt to changing circumstance and emerging problems rather than a single use solution with limited application or lifespan.

I would like to thank all of the participants of the session as I felt it was extremely useful and I feel more prepared to deal with blockers to innovation in future.

Enterprise IT Culture Needs to Enable Tools Rather Than Manage Machines

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Corporate IT departments are failing to adapt to changes in the way that people are using digital technology.  They are misunderstanding what is driving the demand for using consumer technology in the workplace as cries for better devices, rather than the desire to have more control over the tools that people use for their jobs.

Even with the trend toward BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), the underlying modus operandi of the Enterprise IT culture is to try and control every interface that is exposed to corporate data.  This has emerged because Enterprise IT is focused on 2 things:
  • ensuring data security
  • reducing operating costs
Over the past 50 years the Enterprise IT culture of most corporate IT departments has evolved in reaction to these demands set by the organisation leadership.  In the meantime, the consumer technology industry has been providing people with choice, personalisation and adaptability.

It is worth gaining some context of how It has been used within large businesses over that last 50 years to understand why corporate IT is the way it is.

1960s-70s

In the early days of computing in business, computers we huge capital investments and required a specific and justified use.  So although they were the first general purpose computers, they were generally deployed for specific applications such as account reconciliation, financial transaction processing or manufacturing automation.  
Universities and research departments also invested in early mini-computers to allow their academics and researchers to use the processing power to analyse larger amounts of data than could be done by hand and develop new applications for the machines.
But these computers were expensive, time on them was in short supply.  It was not unusual for the students to work nights just to allow them to get access to computer time if their project was not allocated a specific computing time budget.
In the late 70s the birth of the home computer changed this upside down. For just a couple of thousand pounds, anyone could get a computer all to themselves, all of the time.  While the like of Jobs and Wozniak set-up Apple to sell kit computers to enthusiasts, Bill Gates at Microsoft had ambitions to get a computer (running his proprietary software) on every desk and in every home.  The industry chuckled to itself at the thought - what would be the point of that when not everybody could use a computer.

1980s

Then in 1981 IBM woke up and created the IBM PC. It became the defacto standard for business computers for the next 20 years and echoes in the PCs purchased today. It standardised the hardware, including the processor (Intel 80x86) and expansion interfaces, and even the keyboard layout.  Most PCs were provided with Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating systems and anyone could develop, distribute and sell software applications for them.  At the time, and even today, many opined about the dominance of the IBM/Intel/Microsoft platform, but this standardisation allowed both hardware and software companies to flourish, creating new applications for computers and accelerate the growth of the business computing market generally.
Emerging from this period of software development were some applications that we take for granted these days.  Word processing turned from being a text based function into what we know it to be now by subsuming the Desktop Publishing (DTP) application functionality. Spreadsheets became immensely powerful, able to run business scenarios at the press of a single button and producing high quality graphs suitable for board meetings and end-of-year reports.  Databases allowed the collection and manipulation of information that was previously ‘locked’ on paper in filing cabinets.
All of these applications went beyond fulfilling a single purpose for users.  The adaptability of these desktop applications allowed users to develop new uses for them, they could record macros, edit scripts, design automated processes and manipulate data on their own computer, on their own desk, using the tools that came as standard.
At the beginning of this period, the use and exchange of data was via printouts and floppy disks, physical objects no more easy to lose than a manilla folder.  By the end, most corporates and many small businesses had some kind of data network allowing files to be passed between computers more easily.

1990s-2000s

The 90s saw the explosion of the network, not only within organisations, but beyond.  While the Internet had been around for some time and was well used within academia, the invention of the World Wide Web made it far more accessible. By the IT department, the network outside of the business was seen as a dangerous place, where data was not safe.  All of a sudden it became too easy to access large amounts of very sensitive data and to lose them.
This data security risk was made even more significant by the wide scale adoption in the 90s of abundance of high-capacity, low-cost memory. All of a sudden it became possible to lose whole databases as easily as losing a set of keys.
Enterprise IT’s response was to apply controls, to reduce access and prevent the copying and distribution of data.  Firewalls blocked websites that allowed files to be moved around, laptops and workstations were locked down to prevent users from installing tools that would circumvent the firewall restrictions, mobile phones with crippled features became the corporate standard.   IT effectively became a mechanism to prevent people doing things that they found useful.  The battle lines between the web and data security were drawn up.

2010s-now

As smartphones have become more prevalent more people have been introduced the benefits of easy access to information sharing and moreover they have been exposed the possibilities of selecting, installing and trialing applications that use shared data and are designed to fit their specific working processes and patterns.  
The pain of using locked down corporate tools is so contrasted by the pleasure of using devices like the iPhone and the benefits so great that it is common to see business people carrying two devices around, their corporate Blackberry for their business phone calls and email, and a personal iPhone for everything that they can’t get the Blackberry to do.
Business users try out productivity apps for tracking their time, expenses travel, contacts, task lists.  All of these are things where corporate enterprise is obviously failing to provide them with the tools that work in the way that they want, but their desire to make their own working lives easier and more productive means that they pay their own money to try alternatives out for themselves.
In response many organisations are experimenting with or adopting BYOD (bring your own device) as an answer to the demands from within to stop being quite so draconian.  However, many of these BYOD strategies are mistaking the demand for more flexibility of devices for a request for better devices rather than the desire to have access to tools that they can adapt.

Tools vs machines

The essential difference between tools and machines is that tools are adapted and manipulated by those that use them to allow them to do their job better.  While machines are built by one group of people to be operated and maintain by another group who have limited capability to influence changing that machine.
While the Enterprise IT approach to BYOD gives employees the ability to use the latest smartphone, tablet or other computing device, ticking the boxes of appearing to be modern and forward thinking (and perhaps attracting or retaining skills and talent) it still relies on the software systems to protect the organisation’s data.  
Enterprise IT BYOD allows the employees to install Angry Birds and even the their own choice of email client, but rarely does it allow the employee to connect their downloaded expenses app to the company expenses system or integrate a speech transcription service to an internal document store.  And how many Enterprise IT departments give employees a list of sanctioned cloud storage and file sharing services (contrasted with how many corporate employees use Dropbox regularly without permission).

I believe that the Enterprise IT culture within most large corporates it still fundamentally failing to understand the problem that has allowed them to become sidelined by consumer technology.  They are still providing a machine, a monolithic engine that the employees operate.  While these operators are, wherever they can ignoring the machine and picking up the tools that most fit their needs.  They do this because they were designed to commoditise desktop computing, to make it efficient and allow it to scale during a period of standardisation.  

We are now in a period of technology innovation, where applications are abundant and cheap. The challenge now is to allow people to be effective by allowing them to choose and adapt their own IT tools.

Enterprise IT of the future

A successful organisation, and therefore one with a successful IT department, in the future must still concern itself with core shared systems and services, but it will be far more focused on providing application interfaces rather than user interfaces.  It will be able to recognise and purchase based on the quality of a vendor system’s APIs.  It will then manage, secure and protect those interfaces no matter what user application is connected to it.
The IT department will also become a curator and quality control for an application marketplace, ensuring that employees are provided with good and useful advice on which applications are suitable for corporate use.   Where suitable applications are not available for specific processes or use cases, the IT department would provide any application development team (either internal or external) with the information they need to create good applications as well as providing development and testing APIs.

By doing these things, the Enterprise IT department will support the need for their organisation to keep up with the whirlwind of change that is happening in the wider world of technology and once again become an enabler for employees who simply want to be able to do their jobs better.

Preparing for UKGovCamp 2013

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It’s that time of year again, when I get all excited about the wonderful things that will be happening. No, I’m not blogging a few days too late, I’m excited about UKGovCamp 2013.  I start to anticipate all of the fantastic gifts (of shared knowledge and experience) that I’m about to receive and the people that I’ll be able to catch up with, to find out what they’ve been doing for the past year (if Twitter hasn’t already told me) and what they’ve got planned for the coming year.

But just like Christmas, I also start to try and think about what I can give this year.  What is it that I’ve done that I can share, how I can help others.

There has been a bit of chatter about whether we have reached peak BarCamp, whether these sort of gatherings are all that they used to be.  Certainly the mainstream acceptance of the format of these events and particularly the part that UKGovCamp had in the creation of the Government Digital Service has meant that it’s no longer quite the furtive, underground, disruptive movement it once was.  However, Steph, Dave and the other UKGovCamp organisers have made wise choices and have managed to preserve the core principles, values and value of UKGovCamp.

UKGovCamp is still a place where the people who are actively engaged in bringing digital technology to government bodies and public service organisations can get together to share, to catch-up and to support each other’s efforts.  At UKGovCamp people who might be working in environments where the ideas they espoused are misunderstood, ignored or outright resisted can be re-invigorated and encouraged to carry on regardless.  It’s a place where ideas are tested, plans hatched and forces are mobilised.  And yes, it is also a talking shop, a place to shoot the breeze, chat and gossip.

The people who turn up there every year come from many backgrounds; central government departments, local government, comms, PR, emergency services.  There are social media gurus, policy wonks, open data evangelists, service managers, designers and devs.  People who care about politics, democracy, society, public services, and value for money, but mostly people who care about people.

It strikes me that this gathering of passionate, engaged and participatory people is a huge opportunity to do something very useful.  I think that there is an opportunity to get 20 or so of these people in a room for 45 minutes to:

  • understand what the most important problems are, which might include:
    • lack of understanding at the senior manager level
    • not enough established/shared business cases 
    • lack of appetite for risk 
    • restrictive IT practices
    • access to specialist skills, tools or data
    • lack of vision beyond ‘Channel Shift’ of transactions (my particular favourite)
  • devise ways in which those issues can be tackled collaboratively
  • identify the tools needed
  • encourage others to develop the solutions further

I’m sure that in 45 minutes we won’t be able to do anymore than start the conversation, gather some ideas on how to tackle them and (hopefully) get some volunteers to mobilise others around the issues.

What I would really like to see happen is communities of people who are tackling similar underlying issues develop. Not just those that tackle the day-to-day issues of using the technology (these already exist), but the underlying problems taking digital technology into an organisation.

If enough people feel that a session like this would be useful, then I will seek some advice on how to structure a session to get the best out of people and propose it on the day.  Your comments would be most welcome.