Stepping Behind The Rhetoric of Digital Transformation

Fundamentally the challenge for current leaders and public sector organisations is the legacy thinking and a business model which is rooted in serving a de facto purpose which is disconnected from the people and places the organisation or leaders serve – Carl Haggerty


Yesterday I chaired an event where the CEO of HACT , Matt Leach, gave us a wicked provocation.

Talk of a digital transformation in housing (he could also have been talking about care, health etc) is rubbish.

It hasn’t happened.

All the talk , all the conferences , all the clubs , the tweets,  all the lists of digital leaders – it’s all rhetoric.

Nothing has changed.

We are delivering the same services as we did in 1965. Just with shiny websites and customer portals.  

It’s a point that Carl Haggerty also refers to in his must read post. Too many people are claiming that there is digital transformation happening – when really it is just automating legacy processes.

It’s improvement for sure. Less time for customers , less money for providers – but it’s not ‘transformation’, a word possibly even more abused than innovation.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 11.26.00

Here’s what transformation could be:

  • Rebuilding your organisation as platform – enabling people to select the suppliers and services they themselves want – rather than the ones that made it through your procurement framework.
  • Rewiring your organisation for the network era – stripping out hierarchy and management and making the,  often painful, transition to decentralised decision making.
  • Automating everything that can be automated. But not before stripping out legacy protocols and systems.  Decommissioning old world services as you launch new ones, reserving your people for worthwhile jobs that add value to their lives and those of others.

Transformation is not about the illusion of radical change (better, faster services , less crap than they used to be) but rather a fundamental rethink of why you exist – and a reshaping of the ways you deliver upon it.

That said, a few events I’ve been to over the past week have reminded me that many of us are a long way from this.

For a lot of people closer to the frontline some minor changes could be truly transformative.

Over the past days I’ve heard the , sometimes sad,  reality of people trying to change things whilst their organisation seems to fight against it.

  • Of organisations where social media is still banned, or at least actively discouraged
  • Of organisations where IT departments tell people resources like Yammer and Slack cost £35,000
  • Of people stuck using digital tools that were last updated when Gordon Brown was in Number 10.

(As an aside I was told great stories of young people entering the workplace not knowing what Outlook is. Not even realising that Microsoft made anything other than Xbox!)

For all the talk of transformation we are in an era of digital haves and have nots. And Matt rightly questioned how seriously this agenda is taken strategically.

  • How many social sector organisations have true digital leaders on their boards?
  • How many Chief Information Officers (or their equivalent) are part of the executive function?

At the end of the conference I collected up some of the evaluation sheets.

The first one had scored my slot , presented in the slides above, 5 out of 10.

My talk of robots, 3D printing and self management was a world away from what they needed. They just wanted tips on how they could convince their organisation that social media had a business benefit.

Transformation, like innovation, is all relative. We need to support whatever makes a difference to people. 


19 thoughts on “Stepping Behind The Rhetoric of Digital Transformation

  1. This is fab Paul. A great blog after a long week at work. When I was demonstrating our new website to teams across the country one colleague said that she was really impressed and then she asked me how she could get on the internet. I hadn’t realised that we still limit access to web for some of our employees. Aaaaaaah. How are our colleagues supposed to encourage customers to ‘get online’ if they don’t do it themselves? At least I have made some headway on social media although frustrated with senior managers who say they ‘don’t do’ social media as they haven’t got time. Sigh!

    1. Thank you Harriet. I guess the positive here is we are being reminded that there’s still so much of the basic stuff to do! I stopped posting about social media – a conscious decision – a year or so ago thinking that boat had sailed. Clearly – it hasn’t yet!

      Appreciate you taking time to comment

  2. So very unfortunately true but absolutely spot on Paul. Letting go of old ways of working and old school thinking about service and customers remains the real challenge, but turkeys wont generally vote for Christmas.

    1. Agree – which is why we need a wider coalition of change than we have at the moment. We need to be more purposeful clearly if we want to see real transformation

  3. Absolutely spot on Paul. I can sense your frustration in the post on the lack of progress and feel very similar. Digital leadership on Board is a key area – I often ask this question of an organisation and I am yet to receive a positive ‘yes’! I was also reminded earlier this week just how disparate digital progress is across #ukhousing – such a wide spectrum of ‘progress’.

  4. Agree Brett – and it’s brought home to me by a week spending time with social care and health organisations too. This doesn’t seem like a problem that housing alone can crack.

    Agree re board members too and I hear Matt Leach has some exciting ideas about this. (I should also say that we at Bromford recently ran a targeted board recruitment for digital innovators – recruiting Sally Higham )

  5. As ever a spot on post Paul!

    Agree with what you’ve said about the need for real transformation in how housing services are delivered. We need to stop being reactive and inefficient and use data and technology to shift to andeliveryodel that is predictive and cost effective. I suspect the only way of doing this is to make a really clear business case?

    Matt is right about the CIO role within any Exec Team, but as you rightly point out you also need these skills at board level too?

    1. Thanks Nick – perhaps people are not being bold enough (or clear enough) with the business case. Ultimately transformation is happening in organisations like yours as there is a very clear vision from the top table – like it or not that’s absent in a lot of places.

  6. Good stuff, as always fella. The Outlook comment did make me chuckle, as did the use of old tech bit. Single greatest frustration with the Housing Sector is that half the time it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know when it comes to tech. It’s like we’re trying to run at 60% of our capabilities when with a few alterations it could be 90-100%.

    1. Thanks and of course agree. A lot of this is just about simple future proofing – putting in a little thought at the outset and building for a fast changing environment. Building for an iterative era rather than one of permanence. Thanks for the mention in the post too

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