Digital transformation needs a little more talk and much more action

A straw poll session at this year’s Socitm Spring Conference revealed some uncomfortable insights on the state of digital transformation across the UK public sector. Mel Ross looks at what’s to be done.

Digital transformation is big business across the private, public and third sector and is expected to be worth $2.1 trillion (£0.9tn) globally by 2019, according to figures from market-intelligence provider International Data Corporation. 

Correspondingly, digital leadership is the new king of the block, with courses and digital leaders being touted and praised all over the place. Despite the rise of digital transformation and digital leadership as strategic agenda points, many local authorities are still struggling to deliver on both fronts.

It’s certainly true that there are a few positive examples of digital transformation. However, all too often these authorities are seen as outliers and exemplars: they shouldn’t be seen as stars, they should be seen as normal and those who aren’t making similar strides should be seen as abnormal. 

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A straw poll session conducted in partnership with Socitm Advisory at the Socitm Spring Conference in April sheds some light on why many councils are where they are on the digital transformation journey. We sought opinion on themes which might normally go below the radar of more formal research questions and uncovered some rather revealing, albeit worrying, areas to note.

Revealing area number one: 92% of attendees said they were carrying out some sort of digital transformation, yet, one-fifth of attendees said the difference between change and transformation was not understood at all in their organisation, while 52% said it was only understood or known in some areas. In other words: “Lots of us are doing digital transformation, but we don’t know what we are doing!”

The difference between change and transformation is massive. Change should be constant, as we incrementally make things better, faster, cheaper, and simpler. It is improving upon the past. Transformation only needs to be done on a “when required” basis and starts from a blank sheet of paper.

Revealing area number two: When asked how active their council’s leadership team were in current digital transformation efforts, 28% said not at all, 44% said they supported it but were not active, and – most surprisingly – no-one cited a fully-active leadership team in any digital transformation efforts.

Leadership has long been cited as the key to transformation and change projects, just think of US leadership guru John P Kotter’s eight-step change-management process, outlined in his 1996 bestseller Leading Change. Kotter’s relevance today is his focus bringing the right people together at the beginning of transformation to have a strong start. He understands the importance of profile over title.

Revealing area number three: To a question asking about the scope of their organisation’s digital transformation, not one person said they were undergoing a business-wide digital transformation.

To paraphrase a quote from Swedish international footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, if you buy a Ferrari, why drive it like a Fiat? Likewise, if you are embarking on a digital transformation programme why reduce it to silo areas or themes of change and not redesign? Recognising the need for change is only part of the solution; making that change happen is the thing.

Local government isn’t learning from its mistakes

Local government is not being clear and neither is it learning from its mistakes or leveraging good news stories around us.

The fundamental issue is a lack of a council-wide approach to change and transformation and one reason for that, based on our straw poll, has to be a lack of digital leadership: the mindset, commitment and participation needed at a leadership level to take a local authority into the 21st Century.

Things like change-fatigue, politics, and savings demands are definitely real challenges to driving proper digital transformation, even digital change. But they are challenges, not reasons for not doing it or for excusing such slow adoption.

What can we do to change things? We need a greater and more aggressive call for leadership development to build the right attitudes and aptitudes to serve our customers and modernise our businesses. That leadership ability also needs to drive and cope with change in people, structure and process, not just technology.  

We also need an urgent focus on better understanding the current digital skills landscape of our workforces as well as across our customer and community landscape.

Added to that, we need to include cultural nuances and behaviours in these assessments so that we can then plan our change and transformation efforts as parallel streams between people, process and technology. It shouldn’t be a case of one before the other, or one instead of the other to keep the budget down.

It’s much easier than it sounds, but we also need to share more. There is more and more sharing happening in the form of case studies being presented at conferences and platforms like Knowledge Hub. But it’s all too little, too slowly.

Local authorities need to also look outward to other sectors such as retail and gaming, as well as to other countries, and inward to what’s happening right under our noses in our own organisations.

Finally, we need to address change as something which is normal and constant, and to build this into our current plans and tactics around service and people. But let’s also agree that real transformation is needed urgently to get our entire local authority landscape better able to operate in a digital and global world.

Jim Dunton

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