Impressing the Victorians and how the modern desktop doesn’t work

Is our computer desktop fit for purpose?

A simple question, but one in an agile working world which is increasingly important. My short answer to the question though is ‘no’, it actively hinders things, reinforcing the workplace behaviours and cultures we have comprehensively shown are ineffective.

When I started work there was no e-mail in the workplace and paper files arrived in an in tray. I worked on them and moved them to an out tray. People moved the files around the building and then on to other buildings. E mail essentially does the same thing, only faster.

From a process point of view we are still working in the same way as we have always done, writing around to other colleagues seeking permission to take decisions, seeking opinions from people we think may be interested in our work, or letting people know what we are doing in the hope they may take an interest. If we were explaining this to a Victorian it could be summed up as “we are working in the same way you did only we have worked out how to turn paper into electric stuff, and by the way we are still using the QWERTY keyboard” – which to be honest is a bit embarrassing, shouldn’t we have done a bit better?

In large corporate organisations this ‘write around’ process is embedded in the DNA of the place, reinforcing hierarchies and obscuring inefficiencies. Large amounts of time is spent trying to track and chase ‘decisions’. In organisations that trade in knowledge these decisions and this movement is how they create value. If a manufacturer tracked stock in the same way we track decisions they would be out of business in a heart beat.

How would things be different if we stopped talking about a “desktop” with all it’s connotations of a desk in an office and started talking about a “workspace”.

So what would our computer workspace consist of? We would need a workflow engine through which every decision was put. No more long, languid e-mails, just clear questions with automatic checklists to make sure that, say, the resource implications of each decision were considered as a matter of course. Perhaps even with links to the current budget / people /skills of the person wanting to commit resources. Alongside the workflow engine would be a networking tool that enabled people at all levels to see what others were doing and jump in to conversations on topics of interest. Of course there is probably a need to have bilateral communications tools such as instant messaging embedded in all of this. We probably also need E mail (with the ‘reply all’ button removed) but only as a tool of last resort, because as anyone with teenagers knows you only get e-mail from grown-ups. All of this needs to run in a way that optimizes processor capacity within all devices and really minimises the bandwidth required to make this work so that it runs as well on a hillside, in a coffee shop or in a moving vehicle as it does in the office

So how would my day be different? I would be able to see clearly what my teams were working on, jumping in where I could add value and perspective. I would be able to see all of the decisions I needed to be part of. I (and more importantly everyone else) would be able to see how I was performing in terms of getting stuff done. If I was sitting on things then that would be clear. It would also be clear to everyone who was adding value to what.

So Microsoft, Google et al, please don’t upgrade Office and co by adding shiny buttons, rebuild it from the ground up as a minimum viable product that quickly networks and enables a 21st century workplace that works well anywhere – enabling an approach to work that would actually impress the Victorians.

Posted in digital, employees, Government, internet, Leadership, Lean, Software, transparency, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Digital isn’t E Gov in better clothes

I read a couple of blogs yesterday that prodded me into blogging action (it’s been a while). Mark Thompson wrote (here), in response to Andrea Di Maios Gartner post (here) saying that digital government is just making E government work. I am not going to critique the work of two people who clearly know a lot more than I do about technology but I am very concerned about the way I and my colleagues in government are seen by Gartner (assuming of course Andrea’s views are his company’s).

There are a lot of us in the UK government working hard to make Digital services a reality and no one, and I mean no one, thinks this is E government with a better fitting suit. For me the main difference is the way the business thinks.

We are building services which enable citizens, and importantly others acting for citizens, to interact with government in ways that work for them. This is to some extent about technology, but is mainly about changing the way we view risk. No longer are ‘we’ the ‘government’ the only people who can deliver public services. Digital is about some direct delivery but increasingly you will see platforms that enable others to deliver and joining things up in new and different ways.

E government was about building systems to deliver the same services we were delivering manually. Digital is about different services, often not directly delivered or designed by us (and us being OK about that).

One of the problems with this approach is that our ‘Big Supplier’ base have struggled to keep up. The cynics amongst you would suggest they have deliberately chosen not to keep up, as this breaks up their commercial models.

The area that intrigues me most is why suppliers to business keep trying to interest me in the way things work. When I bought my first couple of computers for home use the salesmen tried to talk to me about the processor/RAM, etc, but over time it was assumed that computers “just work” and the choice becomes a silver one or red one. The PC became a digital service. There seems to be a maturity curve for sales conversations moving from how something works to what it does.

The same maturity curve was (more slowly) followed in that other high-tech purchase we all make, buying a car. I don’t doubt that the anti-skid system within my car’s electronics is really clever but a detailed discussion wasn’t the centre piece of my purchasing conversation. We did talk about the fact that the car wouldn’t roll over if my 18-year-old misjudged a corner though. And yet when technology vendors come to see me we quickly end up in conversations I don’t fully understand with all sorts of clever reasons why they can’t / wont solve my actual business problems.

If Andrea and his Gartner colleagues genuinely think that digital is re-warmed E government and are advising their clients of that, it is no wonder that the range of large suppliers who really ‘get’ digital government is still quite small.

The question for anyone reading this on the supply side is “are you an IT / technology company, or are you really a digital services company?” From where I sit there are too many of the former and not enough of the latter.

Those of us trying to build digital services are simply not interested any more in building our own technology.  We want people around us who can help us create services that citizens value today and have the flexibility to change to what they may want tomorrow. E government wasn’t ever even close to that aspiration, regardless of how it was dressed.

Posted in digital, Government, Software, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Creating digital services. A jump not a journey

Perhaps a little naively I have spent most of my adult life trying to find the perfect productivity system. I have read various books on the subject and keep challenging myself to get more out of the 24 hour day. I use a mix of Microsoft Outlook and an A4 notebook. This week I have added in a version of the Eisenhower matrix (urgent vs important grid) to supplement the Post It method (use a square post it to write the things you must do today). However it still feels that this is still writing to do lists to consume the time I don’t manage to get from elsewhere. However the very large, bad tempered, and demanding elephant in the room is my e mail Inbox….

Part of me says I should ignore the Inbox and focus on areas where I can add value to my business. However given that in practical terms the organisation uses e mail as a workflow engine it is difficult to simply opt out. The best I have managed is to develop a productivity system that tries to tame the elephant. It doesn’t swap the elephant for <insert something nicer, easier to handle and less demanding>. Various pieces of technology are starting to emerge which may challenge e mail  and I guess over the next few years e mails will disappear – how many teenagers do you know who use e mail unless they are communicating with adults?

I don’t yet have a clever answer for the collection of tech that will combine collaboration, video, speech, voice and storage into a package that supports people in the quest to add value to their customers. Although the first person to market with a productivity suite of things as a web service may be on to something. The e mail question however is just a rally point for the dissatisfaction we feel when systems drive us to serve the machine as we do battle to ‘clear the Inbox’, losing sight of what we are really there for.

The interesting question though is how did we (only) get here? For most people in large organisations they are still working in the same way they were 25 years ago when I started my first job. E mails have replaced memos and carbon paper but the ‘call and return’ / ‘fire and forget’ systems remain.

This issue does expose the bigger challenge of leading the building of digital services. We can now easily build systems which make what we already do faster and cheaper. But, this just digitises processes which have analogue DNA. I have written before about the dangers of using stuff that ‘works’, limiting our ability to think about the future (Fax machines in the NHS and lawyers offices for example). It is the doing things right vs doing right things problem.

Language is important here. It seems to me that we shouldn’t just talk about “digitising  services” as this implies digitising our anlogue thinking. We need to “create digitial services” and see it as a jump not a journey (or any other term that implies incrementalism).

The big digital leadership challenge is to be disruptive, explicitly challenging anything which looks like an ‘e’ version of what went before, asking the unscripted questions that drive the innovation which, in the words of Peter Drucker “creates a new dimension of performance”.

Posted in analogue, digital, lawyers, Uncategorized, web | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

How digital can boost the economy

Having systematically created a substantial digital footprint I have been brought up short this week whilst buying a house. For those of you who haven’t bought a house in a while little has changed since, well, ever. It is still very much an analogue process.

I spent three hours the other night filling in forms for the solicitors and the mortgage company. The information was the same on both sets of forms but presented slightly differently. The problem I have come up against is something of a clash between the digital way in which I live my life (we haven’t got any original utility bills, for example) and the analogue expectations of the solicitor and mortgage company (utility bills are required to prove residency).

Fortunately I am dealing with real people (who are great by the way) so am able to explain what we can and can’t provide. My conclusion is that analogue is just about able to cope with small numbers of analogue transitions at a local level but it just won’t scale to deliver anything resembling a quality service. Digital on the other hand does scale.

At the moment my great big digital footprint is being wasted – a utility bill is easily doctored yet my digital life is so complex it would be difficult to fake. No one really wants to see a return to the bad old days of rash mortgage lending. However if better use was made of the digital trails we all leave then more sophisticated lending decisions could be made which would allow more people to get mortgages, which in turn will stimulate the housing market and drive the demand for new houses.

I know it probably isn’t that simple but the technology exists for the mortgage / legal profession to make the transition to digital. The clever players will retain the ‘assisted‘ elements of their services but do the admin in a much more efficient manner, supported by digitally driven decision support. They could all learn from the likes of John Lewis whose assisted digital retail business model is allowing them to relentlessly pull away from the competition. So come on high street lawyers, throw away those forms and re-think your (digital) world.

Posted in analogue, assisted digital, digital, forms, lawyers, mortgage, retail, Risk | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Put the intranet out of its misery?

What is the intranet for anymore? Back in the day the intranet was the place where an organisation put its private stuff, the internal polices and information it didn’t want its customers to see. It was, to a large extent, a product of its time with organisations having a web platform and an often separate fire-walled intranet platform. Over time the platforms diverted. The website enjoying fame, fortune and investment, the intranet, the unloved child, only used during working hours with functionality that was muttered about over mugs of tea by disgruntled employees.

However these days in the public sector the drive for transparency and the Freedom of Information Act mean that pretty much everything on the intranet is publishable – in essence if someone asked to see anything on our intranet we would have to give it to them.

So why not save the money and close the intranet. Just put up an employee zone on the website. Use the same metrics you use for customers and put the same care into designing a compelling self-service proposition for employees as you do for customers. Enable employees to look at corporate information in their own time on equipment of their choosing.

The risk of course is that on a slow news day someone sees something ‘silly’ in your polices, or the dark corners of your internal workings. The answer I suppose is just to try harder….

Posted in employees, FOI, internet, intranet, transparency, web | 2 Comments

Lean and Agile, can’t have one without the other?

I spent some time at the Government Digital Service last week and saw at first hand the race to launch the GOV.UK website on 17th October 2012. Much is talked about the value of using the Agile methodology to develop the software. However to my non software developer eyes there was a familiarity to the work and the approach. I began to realise that Agile, a recent product of the software development industry had a great deal in common with Lean systems. Messrs Ohno and Demming would definitely approve of the way GDS are working. Just how similar are the two methodologies?  The Agile manifesto says;

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Jeffrey Liker, in his book The Toyota Way writing about Lean systems, talks about 14 principles which are;

  • Principle 1: Base management decisions on a long-term philosophy; even at the expense of short-term financial goals
  • Principle 2: Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.
  • Principle 3: Use “pull” systems to avoid overproduction.
  • Principle 4: Level out the workload (Heijunka). (Work like the tortoise, not the hare).
  • Principle 5: Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.
  • Principle 6: Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous.
  • Principle 7: Use visual control so no problems are hidden.
  • Principle 8: Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.
  • Principle 9: Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.
  • Principle 10: Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.
  • Principle 11: Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.
  • Principle 12: Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation (genchi genbutsu).
  • Principle 13: Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly (nemawashi).
  • Principle 14: Become a learning organization through relentless reflection (HANSEI) and continuous improvement(KAIZEN).

Crash these things together the leadership challenge is to answer these questions;

  1. Are we designing around customers, only doing things that have been asked for?
  2. Are we recognising flow and quickly changing the stuff that doesn’t work?
  3. Are we doing simple stuff that actually works?
  4. Are we being transparent about our problems and managing them in public?
  5. Am I providing leadership that enables rather than distrusts my team members
  6. Do we believe in what we are doing?
  7. Are we reflecting and learning?
  8. Are we moving at a pace we can sustain, and improving daily?

Given that today’s operations are so intrinsically linked to software applications we need to aim to manage our business in line with all of these principles, answering the leadership challenge questions in the affirmative. Talking about Lean systems with an IT team that are working with Gantt charts, or an Agile team working with a business looking for tight ‘clear plans’  just isn’t going to work.

Looks simple, hard in practice, but certainly worth the effort.

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When business models collide

I have just come back from a very frustrating trip to our local branch of Tesco. Need to say right from the start I am not anti-Tesco, but the experience this morning is a warning to us all when  addressing the question, “am I adding a valuable feature to my current way of doing things or, am I adding a new business model on top of what I am currently doing (and am I going to annoy my existing customers?)?”

Supermarkets started life as self-service stores, but in recent times have added web-based ‘full service’ offers. I can now also have my Tesco shopping delivered, or I can go and collect it from a shed in the car park. This is fine if the picking of my shopping is done is a warehouse in Anywherebuthereshire as the business models of served and self-serve operate separately. However what seems to be happening is that supermarkets want to leverage their investment in the bright shiny shop and run both operations from the same  building.

The practical result of this approach was that I counted over 20 large trolleys of industrial construction (plastic pull out trays, etc) being pushed around an already crowded supermarket like a pod of castored whales hoovering up the shopping and generally getting in the way. The end result is that an already unpleasant customer experience turns into a truly nasty one as the self-serving customers are forced to have to join queues to get to things on shelves, endlessly back up my trolley (or is that me just being polite?) and generally wait much longer than needed. I don’t imagine that the generally grumpiness being directed at the Tesco team was fun, or particularly productive for them either.

The obvious answer to all of this is to use the internet service and not visit the shop. However as my wife rightly points out, we always spend less on the web than when I go as there is no opportunity for idle grazing and trying new things.

The lesson for Tesco (and other retailers who do the same thing) is make sure that you recognise when you have created another, and different, business model and understand where bits of those business models overlap and actively manage the contention that may ensue, or I will go elsewhere.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment