A Digital Detente

A fairly common theme in conversations I’ve had over the years has been the struggle between ICT and digital teams — where the IT team are perceived to be the ‘department of no’ and the digital team have acquired a reputation for being all about creating whizzy websites, but not caring much about the steady sustainability that’s needed for ‘proper enterprise systems’ and security.

I think it’s time we put this behind us.

It’s time for ICT to get with the programme

A fundamental purpose for the IT team should be to provide a platform that makes it possible to deliver digital services that are so good that people prefer to use them. Security can not be fit for purpose if it results in services which are so difficult to use that people don’t use them, or worse leads to workarounds that actually put sensitive information at greater risk. And all the architecture and robust systems management in the world will be useless if it isn’t able to move at the speed of business.

Obviously, this isn’t without its challenges. In a complex business environment (especially somewhere like local government with hundreds of different services which are usually reliant on legacy systems) the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra of digital native companies like Facebook isn’t a good fit (in fact, Facebook dropped that too as it had reached a scale where it needed a less cavalier approach). Many of our key systems have their origins in the e-government days of the early 2000s and whether or not these are fit for the internet age largely depends on suppliers over whom we often have frustratingly little influence.

We need to find ways to extract ourselves from these legacy platforms, leapfrog technology barriers and lay the foundations that will allow us to get off the treadmill of endless incremental updates to outdated technologies. Fortunately, there are lots of opportunities for us to make a start on this, using platforms that can be deployed in a fraction of the time that systems implementations used to take and by adopting modern open standards that will allow us to start taking greater control over our destiny. It’s not without complexity, but accepting that Yet Another Big System Procurement isn’t the answer is probably a good place for us to start.

(As an aside, @Matt’s podcast here is worth a listen for a more in depth look at reasons why corporate IT is often the way it is: https://wb40podcast.com/2017/06/19/wb40-podcast-episode-27-the-why-of-corporate-it)

And ‘digital’ will be a flash in the pan unless it can work in harmony with ICT

I think it’s equally important to make sure that ‘digital’ doesn’t become an ivory tower that exists in glorious isolation from the wider systems and information ecosystem that digital services need to be part of if they’re to be truly valuable and sustainable.

I’ve long been a fan of the GDS Design Principle of ‘Do the hard work to make it simple’ (https://www.gov.uk/design-principles#fourth). I think this applies as much to the systems and information context as it does to understanding user needs and service design. While ITIL-esque management practices can seem bureaucratic and frustratingly cautious, there are underlying principles at the heart of them which are important and shouldn’t just be dismissed.

I actually think that lots of the skills involved in digital ways of working can be enormously valuable for the management of ICT platforms too. So an effective and mutually respectful collaboration can have huge benefits in helping deliver better services for our users.

Time for a manifesto…

At Hackney we’re fortunate that the Council has organised the traditional IT responsibilities and digital roles together as part of a single integrated team. The Council is also clear that this combined function is not a ‘back office’ service, but actually needs to be at the heart of how we continue to deliver better services for the borough’s residents and businesses in spite of the severe cuts to our funding by central government.

Some years ago I mused about the need to replace IT strategies (and indeed ‘digital strategies’) with a manifesto that sets out what we’re for and how we’re going to work together: https://bytherye.com/2013/08/28/does-ict-need-a-manifesto/. We’ve now done this and have created our ‘HackIT manifesto’ which sets the principles that we will follow to make sure that all areas of our team are working together with a shared focus: https://bit.ly/HackITmanifesto. We’re applying this to all aspects of our work and it’s proving a very effective tool that we can use to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in the right way — with digital and ICT working together and learning from one another.

(If it’s of interest, the team blog about the work we’re up to together here: http://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/)

The Wile E Coyote moment

I was very taken with Benedict Evans’ description of the way that companies like Nokia and RIM (BlackBerry) responded to the advent of the iPhone in 2007:

You might call this the ‘Wille E Coyote effect’ – you’ve run off the cliff, but you’re not falling, and everything seems fine. But by the time you start falling, it’s too late.

(Full article here: http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2016/2/19/mobile-smartphones-and-hindsight)

Ten years later, the way that the smartphone has become such an intrinsic part of our everyday lives seems perfectly natural, but it’s fascinating to reflect on how much has changed in a such a relatively short period of time. * The first iPhone’s specs (http://m.gsmarena.com/apple_iphone-1827.php) were incredibly basic when compared with devices now. ** It didn’t have 3G, there was no video camera, it had a screen that was tiny and very low resolution by contemporary standards, and you couldn’t even copy and paste! I think it’s well worth taking a moment to consider what nascent and ‘not quite there yet’ technologies around today are going to have this sort of impact in the next decade…

And the implications of this aren’t limited to gadgets.

My first job after graduating was working for a specialist wine company at a time when their business was being challenged by the big supermarkets, who had realised there was good money to be made providing shoppers with the opportunity to pick up their regular tipple along with their groceries. Despite our best efforts we couldn’t stop the ground shifting beneath our feet and ultimately the company folded. Meanwhile one of our competitors seemed to be breaking all the rules (no town centre shops, case sales only etc) and yet they managed to turn in year on year profit and growth. ***

What I learned from that was that the answers to the challenges we face often aren’t just pushing harder to make our ‘proven strategies’ work.

This is a lesson which seems very relevant to the challenges of working in local government and technology today. The dramatic reductions in council funding (cut by something like 50% from 2010 levels) and the astonishing pace of change in technology mean that we need to challenge all our preconceptions and ask hard questions about what we do and how we do it.

But as well as being very challenging for us and our colleagues, I think this also presents a real opportunity for creativity. Exploring new techniques and technologies, combined with different ways of working and closer partnerships, can help us focus on the citizens we serve and gives us the opportunity to make a real difference. And that matters. A lot.

* I realise that this isn’t unique in the history of technology. For example Microsoft’s success in achieving the audacious (at the time) goal that Bill Gates articulated in 1980 of having ‘a computer on every desk, and in every home’ is equally impressive and transformational.

** I held off getting an iPhone or other smartphone for several years because I couldn’t find one I wanted that included an FM radio like my Nokia N96. Seems bizarre in retrospect!

*** The happy ending is that later on former colleagues managed to resurrect the company, and are now doing a great job of doing what we did best – selling great wine from amazing producers, but with fewer shops and less emphasis on big brands and big ‘discounts’.

Designing the future of work

A new year and a new commitment to updating this blog a bit more frequently than once every year… I’ve decided that little (ie more than I can fit into a tweet) and often(ish) might be the way to go. Let’s see…

A theme that’s popped up in quite a few of my conversations recently has been how to design a work environment that’s fit for the modern age and which will help our organisations attract our next generation of superstars. It’s a tricky and fascinating topic, full of competing tensions:

  • how do we shift our management cultures from managing activity to delivery of outcomes?
  • if trust is key to this (I think it is), how do we shift our attitudes to risk, especially if the consequences of something going awry could lead to reputational or financial damage?
  • when we design our services, processes and technology how do we get the right balance between the needs of our more experienced staff and those of the newer generations, who are likely to be more familiar with Snapchat than the tools we thought were cutting edge in the 1990s but which often still prevail today?
  • and how can we make sure that work is meaningful, harnessing our people’s motivations to deliver the best results?

I suspect that there isn’t a template answer to this (and I don’t think it’s a sector specific challenge — this applies to public and private sector organisations) and that the key is to tune into the organisation and find the right stepping stones to get moving in the right direction. But I’m sure that the answer is not to simply maintain existing paradigms and try to squeeze those into new technologies and ways of working (which will probably get you to this sort of thing: http://www.theverge.com/circuitbreaker/2016/4/29/11541614/apple-watch-running-windows-95-video).

Here are a few of the links which I’ve found thought provoking:

  • this video on the future of work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G11t6XAIce0&t=6s (I thought this was a great explanation of the idea that ‘work is a thing you do, not a place’)
  • Matt’s #noPC challenge: https://mmitii.mattballantine.com/2017/01/05/nopc/ (my take on this is that it’s about more than just not restricting people to using PCs to get their work done, there’s a real need for purposeful focus on designing services and tools that enable the widest possible choice and flexibility)
  • Ben Thompson’s analysis of the impact that Amazon’s Alexa might have on the future of computing: https://stratechery.com/2017/amazons-operating-system/ (‘normal’ / ‘what I’m used to’ is not the same as ‘eternal’, and be mindful of the potential for shiny things to lure you into a vortex you weren’t expecting…)
  • and I also found Simon Sinek’s thoughts on the Millennial generation really interesting: https://youtu.be/hER0Qp6QJNU (15 mins, watch it through)

On collaboration

I thought that this article from the Economist on collaboration that a colleague pointed out to me last week was an interesting read. It warns that in this age of Slack, chat rooms and instant messaging we are at risk of ‘over-collaborating’.

I can see the sense in this argument, and I definitely recognise how precious focused time has become, and also the challenge that both individuals and delivery teams face in preventing continuous interruptions from affecting their work. It made me think a bit more about what ‘collaboration’ means to me and the role I think it should have in how we get work done.

On reflection I think there are possibly two separate dimensions to how collaboration tools are changing the nature of work.

1. There are some aspects of collaboration which, in my view, are purely positive. For example, working together on the same document (moving away from what was essentially the distribution of electronic pieces of paper to working collaboratively as a team on shared information) has taken away loads of low value work and effort merging feedback and edits, and has also changed the character of the work we do together.

Since adopting Google Apps for Work my team and I now very rarely send each other copies of our work in the way we did before, and it now feels distinctly odd if we aren’t collaborating in real time on shared documents and information.

2. But many collaboration tools are also rapidly increasing the volume and speed that information flows at. I am convinced by the qualitative benefits that social tools like Slack, Google+ and Yammer etc can bring by making teamwork more open and shared, but do agree that they can also add to a sense of being overwhelmed (amplifying some of the well documented problems that email causes us: https://bytherye.com/2015/11/02/is-email-here-to-stay/). There can be some respite in picking up a new communication tool that only a few people are using, but it often won’t be long before take up grows and it becomes yet another crowded space.

Part of the answer to this is likely to be technology getting ever smarter and helping us filter out the information that’s most important and deserving of our attention (which will be one reason why the big technology companies are investing so much in artificial intelligence developments). But I think this will only take us so far, and it will also be essential to think very hard about how we manage our own time, work styles and our expectations of others. A very human challenge…

Is email here to stay?

This post from @ballantine70 hit on a favourite topic of mine: Five hurdles between us and the death of email. Are we doomed to suffer with email for ever? What gives email its staying power? And am I missing something which explains its popularity despite the regular complaints I hear about “email overload”?

Personally, I think that the biggest weaknesses of email are:

1. The assumed SLA

‘I sent you an email so I expected that….’.

I think that this is one of the main reasons that people become overwhelmed by email, and also for work getting stuck as people wait for replies rather than finding more effective ways to collaborate with their colleagues. (I once heard this described as ‘trying to deliver a project by mail order’)

2. The escalation effect

It seems to me that email is often written as casually as an off the cuff text message, and then read as seriously as a memo from the Chief Exec. This mismatch often seems to result in major rows (and also potentially long term working relationship issues) that wouldn’t happen if the issue had been discussed with a less formal approach (by which I mean a quick call or chat — but I’m also seeing brilliant examples of how instant messaging and social media tools can work really well in a business environment too).

3. The time vortex of pseudo-collaboration

I dread to think how much time gets lost in business as people try to knit complex discussions held by email and multiple versions of documents shared by email back together into a coherent form. And that’s before you factor in how much valuable stuff also inevitably gets lost in the process…

A joined up instant message thread, comments on a social media post, and genuine collaboration working together on a single document are transformational in their impact on the pace and quality of work.

We’ve been seeing brilliant examples of how teams are using Hangouts instant messaging and video meetings, Google+ and real-time collaboration on documents to totally change how they work together — for the better. And this includes working with partner organisations. It’s really exciting to see how simple, user friendly, web based tools are helping to make work more collaborative and more productive.

I think Matt’s absolutely right about the importance and the sticking power of email, but I’m also convinced that there’s a better way to get work done now that we’re well into the 21st Century. My favourite initiative is ‘Project Zero’ which is the name that one of our front line service teams have given to their plan to banish email and use better tools for their internal collaboration and communication. It’s not the kind of thing you’d typically associate with working in local government, but I have a feeling that they’ll make it work! 😀

 Watch… a few thoughts after my first week

An ever so slightly geeky digression.

As an avid iPhone user I was intrigued to find out what an Apple Watch would offer. I think it’s interesting to consider whether the emergence of the ‘smart watch’ is just a fad that will soon vanish (in the way that Google Glass seems to have disappeared off the radar for the moment), or whether we really are at the start of an important new stage in the way that we use technology. I realise that Android smart watches have been around for a year or so now, but as those currently require an Android phone they haven’t really been a viable option for me.

So, ten days ago I got a knock at the door and, with roughly the same level of excitement as my six year olds unwrapping a Lego set, I set to opening up what turned out to be a remarkably heavy box given the size of the contents. These are some initial observations on how I’ve found the experience so far and where I think that this new category of device might be important in future.

The short version: I’m really quite liking the Watch. It’s a very nice device, has lots of potential, but unless you’re a bit of a geek I’d probably recommend waiting a bit before leaping in.

The longer version: having used a Jawbone Up for some time a couple of years ago, I was fairly familiar with the life tracking dimension of wearable devices. The Apple Watch misses out some of the features that I liked about the Up (notably sleep tracking), but is definitely quite a different device in the range of things it can do. The main things that have struck me so far are:

1. The battery life has been a very pleasant surprise. So far I’ve comfortably got through the day with at least 50% battery life to spare, and I just about managed to get it to last two days when I gave that a go. I expect this will reduce as I get into the habit of using it more, but the fears that the Watch wouldn’t make it through a full day seem quite misplaced based on my experience.

2. Notifications are handy — but only if you filter them down quite significantly so that you only get alerts for the stuff you care about most. I’m already fairly stringent with which apps I set up for notifications on my phone, but I’ve cut out about half of those from the Watch as I didn’t want a constant tapping on my wrist to become yet another source of distraction. I’ve seen quite a few people observing that they check their phone less frequently once they get a Watch and I think I’m finding the same. It’ll be interesting to see whether that gives a noticeable benefit in reducing time wasted grazing stuff on the phone and possibly also the phone’s battery life…

3. Apps need careful thought to get the most from the Watch’s user interface (I thought that this post did a good job of explaining the thinking process that goes into getting it right). Just like with apps for smartphones, too much or too little results in a poor user experience, but where developers have got it right I’m finding that the Watch can be a genuinely useful device.

My favourite discoveries so far include:

  • Quick actions. For example, I like that I can quickly tick things off my ‘to do’ list using the Watch.
  • Remote control. I’m finding it really neat to be able to choose which music and podcasts I want to listen to without needing to reach for my phone (I rarely use Siri for that when I’m out and about as (a) I feel like a bit of a prat — although I realise that it’s arguable whether or not using my Watch to do this has a similar effect!, and (b) I’ve not found it very accurate). This is my favourite feature at the moment.
  • Walking directions are also a nice feature when I find myself somewhere I’m not familiar with.

But while I like getting notifications for messages and priority emails on the Watch, I am a bit sceptical about using it as a communication device. I’m not sure how to reply with a preset short message without unintentionally coming across as a bit curt, and while Siri oddly seems to be more accurate when I’ve used it on the Watch, I can’t see myself rattling off replies using dictation. But maybe that’s just a personal preference?

edited to add: this evening brought an example of how to get it wrong when developing apps for the Watch. I was excited to see that the National Rail app had added an Watch app, and was pleased to see that they’d trimmed down the features for the Watch. But what’s with giving you the full departure board details for your ‘favourite’ stations (in all directions), and not the details for your ‘favourite’ journeys (i.e. the thing you might actually want to quickly check without fishing for your phone!)? Hopefully that will get fixed soon enough, but honestly!

5. I haven’t been in the habit of regularly wearing a watch for a while, but I have heard a few people comment that they don’t think that they could see themselves leaving their treasured timepieces at home in favour of a smart watch. It’ll be interesting to see if that remains a barrier to adoption for people, or whether smart watches become sufficiently useful that people change the way that they think about their watch.

6. If smart watches do become genuinely useful and widely used, its going to be interesting to see what impact it will have on our mobile strategy. Currently we’ve chosen to favour responsive web design rather than native apps (in line with the principles articulated by Government Digital Service in their post here). But as the Watch doesn’t have a browser this could need to change. I don’t think that’s an urgent issue right now, but it is one to keep an eye on to make sure that we don’t get caught out.

7. My final observation is that morse code could well be in for a renaissance as a tool for gossip using Digital Touch! But I might wait until a few more people have an Apple Watch before I get the old code books from my Scouting days down from the loft…!

And the really short version…

An interesting model for supporting BYOD

As I’ve blogged before (probably too many times!), taking a much more flexible approach to the types of devices we enable for connection to our systems and services feels like an inevitability, and something those of us responsible for providing business IT services need to be prepared for. A Canute style refusal to accept this seems like a great way to make ourselves irrelevant in quick order.

As well as the much discussed security issues that we need to figure out, this also presents complex new questions for how we provide support to our users.

  • How much support do we provide for personal devices and how much help do we provide to our users for getting their access set up?
  • What do we do if a BYOD device breaks?
  • How do we manage the transition from a highly standardised device model to one where we’re actively encouraging diversity?
  • And how do we manage the cost of this?

I thought that this model from Steve Halliday in Solihull looks like a really interesting approach. I like the idea of a points system, and think it could be a useful way to embrace this new world while also keeping control of costs and offering a clear proposition to our users.

Food for thought!