Can we still talk about Digital Transformation?

Words matter. How many times have you been in a conversation where somebody says “it’s just semantics…” to dismiss the point you’re trying to make? Frustrating isn’t it, because semantics = “meaning” and that’s pretty important.

Digital Transformation is dead….

Recently I’m seeing a lot of talk about how “Digital Transformation” is dead, or that the phrase is just a faddish name for the same old thing – change enabled by technology. In one sense that’s not wrong.

Yes, it’s a new term, and has been used, more or less deliberately depending on the author, to indicate something different and worth attending to. Yes, it is basically about using technology (in its broadest sense) to help us turn old organisations and ways of working into new ones. But I think we lose something if we just talk about “technology enabled change”, because there’s nuance in language, and in this case I think that there is genuinely a tangible element that we can set apart and call digital transformation.

Until very recently I worked for Bristol City Council, and my last role there was very deliberately called Head of Digital Transformation. I created the service, shaping the capabilities within it to support a specific scope that went beyond what we’d done before. The service included the elements needed for true digital transformation:

  • Digital Business strategy
  • Enterprise Architecture
  • Technology Strategy
  • Service Design
  • Digital Services UX and content design
  • Software Development and the support/delivery of some of our key council-wide systems

As a service, we combined big picture thinking, design, delivery and operations.

Digital Transformation is not IT Enabled Change

Digital Transformation vs IT Enabled Change

Historically, IT enabled change meant that we used the new features available through updated versions of back-office systems, and new devices, to remove inefficiency and wasteful activity from the work done by our colleagues. More recently it meant using web and mobile services to enable citizens and businesses to interact with us online, getting data to those back office systems and onto staff devices with less manual effort.

All of this activity stayed within an accepted context – that local government provides services, and our role in using technology was to reduce cost and increase satisfaction with the service provided. With the rise of the Government Digital Service (GDS) from 2010 we all began to refer to our web and mobile offerings as “digital services” but they were still firmly within the service provider paradigm.

Re-thinking the relationship between citizens & the state…

But over the next few years it became more and more obvious that no matter how well we did in digitising access to services, and automating tasks in the back-office, we could not meet the financial challenges of austerity. There was simply too much money to be removed from council operating budgets. At the same time we became aware of the ideas that have been badged “government as a platform” – whether from Tim O’Reilly’s “Government 2.0" article, or from earlier thinking such as Manuel Castells’ “Rise of the Network Society”, the fundamental message from these thinkers was that we needed to rethink the relationship between citizen and state.

Surprisingly, roughly the same outcome can be reached from a right-of-centre political rejection of state paternalism, or from a sociological analysis of the effects of the information age revolution on society, or from a critical urbanist political view on active citizenship. I’m going to explore the idea of “local government as a platform” in a linked series of blogs created in my role as Chief Innovation & Research Officer at Perform Green. In this introductory post I just want to underline that there is a genuine challenge to the purpose and therefore the shape and structure of local government.

Re-imagining the future

So we need to do more than just incrementally change how we provide services to citizens. We need to fundamentally re-imagine, re-think and restructure the institutions of government, and change the nature of their relationships with citizens. We need to harness the creativity and capacity of the city, and change the nature of the way that councils and local partners work together with communities to address the issues for their locality. This is surely worth describing with the term “transformation” – I certainly think so.

And to achieve this transformation we will be using technologies and methods that are “of the internet” – including connected physical things, using data generated by multiple sources and by users interactions with us to drive design, while iterating far more rapidly than before. The recent opening of Bristol’s Smart Operations Centre which integrates city and council services to deliver innovative city management has the power to be truly transformative. The links with the world leading Bristol is Open testbed provides a route for innovation and ideas to be quickly assimilated into the cities workings and part of the councils ongoing approach to being a smarter city. This type of transformation around working relationships and digital delivery are key reasons why Huawei have moved Bristol above London to take the number one spot in the recent 2017 Smart City Index report.

Agility, user needs, discovery… these are not practices found in traditional IT enabled change projects – the ERP and CRM rollouts (or death marches) of old. Calling them “Digital” and truly meaning something different, something lower cost, faster to fail and learn from, faster to deliver value to real users – again I think this is a term worth using.

So, to me, Digital Transformation is about using the technology and methods of internet age organisations to bring about major structural change in response to the new context that government is operating within.

This all sounds pretty reasonable to me. So why are people criticising and rejecting the term? I’ll look at that in the second post in this series.

If you are tackling a digital transformation programme and would like to learn more from experts in this field then contact Perform Green directly to gain insights and knowledge from first hand experience.