Let’s talk about tech – getting IT and digital out of the basement

It’s hard to think of an area of life where technology and data haven’t been part of huge changes over the last 10 – 30 years. Well rehearsed examples of that include travel, shopping and banking, where ease of access to doing transactions online is just part of a fundamental change to business models and user experience that is reshaping the way that economies and societies work. Seemingly indomitable companies have vanished and new upstarts have risen up to take their place.

I find it concerning that in many organisations (in both public and private sectors) it is still too common to find technology and data discussed as if they are separate to ‘real work’, with IT teams * hidden well away from their colleagues and seen as ‘back office’ functions. It’s vital that our profession makes a shift from out of date customer / supplier type relationships towards working in real partnership.

That’s what we are working to do in the HackIT team. Our goal is to work closely with our colleagues in other services as equal partners, working together to deliver better outcomes for our borough’s residents and businesses.

Our ‘HackIT manifesto’ (http://hackit.org.uk/how-we-work/how-to-hackit) was created by the team and sets out the ways that we are doing this, with eleven principles that underpin our ways of working. It’s now a couple of years since we created that and lots of great new people have joined our team, so now’s a good time for us to refresh it and make sure that it is still working as a useful guide for the way we work.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking through some of the ways that our interactions can impact on our relationships with our colleagues, and am keen to make sure that our updated ‘manifesto’ reflects some of that.

The language we use must make it clear that we are an integral part of achieving our organisation’s core mission

We need to be consistent in talking in a way that demonstrates that we have something valuable to contribute. Using terms like ‘the business’ or ‘customers’ when we’re referring to colleagues in other services is unhelpful, because it can suggest that we’re simply service providers who don’t have a role to play in helping to shape policies and decisions.

And we must guard against only focusing on our operational work and processes when we explain what we do, because these are simply means to an end not the end itself.

We also need to make sure that we explain concepts (whether that’s technical stuff or describing the way we deliver our work) in layperson’s terms so that colleagues can understand why these matter to their services and users. There’s a risk that people might assume that our work is ‘too techie’ for non-IT folk to understand and it’s up to us to show that isn’t the case.

We need to listen, learn and work together and share one another’s successes

Genuine transformation happens when we learn from our users to understand their needs, and when we combine other teams’ experience and knowledge with expertise in technology and data. No one individual will have the answer, but by working well together in effective multi-disciplinary teams we’re much more likely to be able to take big steps forward.

It’s also essential that the job titles on our name badges don’t distract us from the shared responsibility to deliver results. Whether it’s making a project happen, responding to an operational issue, managing our money and assets well or understanding what we need to do to protect the privacy and security of people’s data, if something is important it is all of our responsibility.

This is also true for the colleagues we are working with. Services don’t outsource their technology and transformation to us and we need to help them understand what we need from them to help deliver successful outcomes and we also need to support them in doing that. That includes taking the time to provide training and advice on roles like being a Product Owner as well as working with colleagues to help them fit in with the rhythm of delivery. But it also means having the confidence to highlight where engagement needs to improve so that we are genuinely delivering together, not just observing other people’s work.

And when we complete a piece of work it’s essential that we take the opportunity to reinforce the trust we want to build across teams by always being generous in the way that we celebrate the success. We mustn’t underestimate the impact of reminding people of the value their contribution as part of a team has made.

We need to be open to new possibilities

It is important that we respect the experience of the past but we also need to make sure that ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘we tried X before and it didn’t work’ doesn’t become an excuse for failing to make the most of new opportunities. It’s surprising how often the impossible can become possible if we let it (especially if we can work together to think around the problems that might stand in the way), and letting ourselves consider flights of fancy from the opportunity presents itself can help make sure that we don’t unnecessarily self-limit ourselves.

But we also need to avoid tech fetishism

Cylindrical voice assistant A or B may well be very clever, but they aren’t silver bullets that will magically solve the challenges facing public services. Trying out new technologies and exploring how they might help our users is something that we should always make time for, but it’s equally important that ‘being innovative’ doesn’t become an end in itself. If we can’t explain why a new technology might be genuinely beneficial for users we probably shouldn’t be spending precious time playing with it. ‘Minimum Viable Product’ type approaches can be a really helpful way to test out new ideas while also minimising the risk of expensive mistakes.

Focus is very important

I find this one of the hardest things to do, and it’s always a struggle to avoid flitting from one thing to the next without seeing through the task in hand. I’m finding it really encouraging to see how using Agile delivery approaches can help to sharpen our focus and accelerate our pace.

Working in the open (eg sharing weeknotes with the team *and* making the time to read them! **) also helps avoid wasted effort as it makes it easy to keep up with the progress and decisions other colleagues are making, with much less faff than traditional project boards etc. It’s essential that we remember that these can help across all areas of our work, not just ‘digital’ projects.

And finally, a bit of pragmatism can be helpful too

As Matthew noted in his post about holding a great show and tell (https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/holding-a-great-show-and-tell), there will be times where it makes sense to adapt our approach so that we are working in a way that makes sense for our users. So, whether that means changing the terminology we use, flexing our expectations of roles in a team so that colleagues are able to contribute effectively or looking for other ways that we can bring out the best from people and circumstances, it’s all good.

What really matters is that we are delivering for our users.


* I think that the distinction of ‘IT’ and ‘digital’ is artificial – but that’s a different blog post! https://bytherye.com/2017/10/07/a-digital-detente/

** I’m pretty unsympathetic if anyone says that it’s hard to make time to skim the weeknotes from across our team – they’re an easier read than traditional highlight reports and take significantly less time than a project board.

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