Steve Jobs, October 7, 2011
“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.”
I decided to start with Steve Job’s quote the second part of my attempt at sharing “experiences” on the digital transformation of the Public Sector (See The arduous path towards a “Smart City” … Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes” reloaded?), considering how his approach to innovation has changed our way of looking at the World of Consumers’ Technology in the last few years.
Since Steve Job’s premature passing, many Tech giants have been following his path and reinforced, in their product development teams, those areas focused on better understanding human behaviors and translate their studies in “more engaging”, “pervasive” and “relevant” (for the users) user experiences.
Companies focused on “Consumer Electronics” and the ICT Industry, have been chasing and confronting with Apple’s philosophy, refocusing resources and attention to how people uses technology, but also to the way technology could be made available to humans in order to solve their daily issues.
In other words, there has been an enhanced focus on assessing use cases on their “mass dimensions”, by introducing sociology, psychology and behavioral sciences in general as part of the development process of technological solutions, with the result of embedding them more tightly in our daily lives, in some cases heavily changing behavioral and social models (consider the impact of mobile smart-phones and apps on a global scale).
These considerations bring me to the question, that is, if we could consider applying this “behavioral” approach to the so called “Digital Transformation of Public Services“, in order to support and sustain change management projects aimed at implementing digital citizenship as part of a digitized society.
The Impact of the “Skills Gap” on Digital Transformation
Through the Digital Transformation of the way we do things, both in the Private and Public Sectors, we are hoping to change our society for the better. But for sure we have to admit that there are a number of negative implications and “side effects”, which are undesired “guests” at the table and, if not properly handled, insurmountable obstacles to achieve our goals.
And while the need of applying proper “change management” practices are “buzz-wordily” on the mouth of anybody who is part of the discussions on the “How-To’s” of Digital Transformation, on the other end, there is general consensus in identifying a broad Technological “Skills Gap” as one of the main root causes for this “lethargy”.
When talking to friends and professionals on the “techies-side” of the “digitization barricades”, it is common to hear them expressing their frustrations about the difficulties to collect, refine and finalize “specifications” necessary to design the new digitized business processes, very often implying that this situation is a consequence of the limited technical skills of their counterparts.
Being an “insider”, I cannot disagree with this view, especially looking at the broader definitions of skills gap given not only by the ICT Industry, but also by Academia, Analysts, etc and which I could summarize in the following: “A Skills Gap is defined as “a significant gap” between an organization’s skill needs and the current capabilities of its workforce.”
Especially when looking at the Public Sector, it is true that, because of tight and shrinking budgets, particularly “strict” labor regulations for public employees and a constantly aging population in western societies, it is very difficult to close some of these gaps with training, job rotations and other usual practices, especially when the required skills are deeply rooted into innovative and rapidly developing technological environments and require highly specialized workforce (the European Commission has addressed this in its study on “The Digital skills gap in Europe“, providing a clear pictures of the situation across EU Member States).
How to Mitigate these Risks and Reduce these Obstacles?
Acknowledging the problem, European Institutions have been steadily working in supporting businesses and public administration in reducing complexity of digital transformation of Industries by defining and promoting new “standards”, funding R&D and participating to pilot initiatives (e.g. through the Horizon 2020 Program), fostering the establishment of “common knowledge” and “best practices” sharing platforms.
On the other end, the ICT Industry seems to be moving in an extremely factual way, focusing on facilitating transformation by using new techniques to leverage on the assets represented by experienced employees (namely their knowledge of processes, policies and governance models) and moving towards platforms more focused on integrating processes, building knowledge across the organization and leverage on “best practice based” configurable interfaces.
More intriguingly, learning from best practices at Consumer Electronics giants, many Government bodies and ICT players are now systematically applying agile development, design thinking (cifr. C. Bason, Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society) and behavioral sciences as methodologies to facilitate the transformation (into their digital “equivalent”) of processes established for the delivery of public services.
The main driver of these new approaches is the realization that the engagement of stakeholders (the public employees) in the rapid prototyping of subsequent tasks/phases of the redesign projects, is a real game changer, allowing technical experts and process experts to “discover” together how to better translate the analog world into its digital representation.
On one end, the civil servants involved in the delivery of the service appreciate that, with their direct engagement in the rapid prototyping phases, the peculiarity of their daily work is “valued” by the team they become part of, their concerns shared and more deeply understood by the developers, while on the other, the developers are able to concretely represent the progresses of the change team work and show, through the rapid prototyping of functionalities, what the real benefits of digitalization are.
In essence, the introduction of “transparency” as the key innovation driver of thedevelopment phase allows translating the codification of specifications into a “discovery journey” which could assure higher acceptance rates and a “final product” built not only on exploiting available technical features, but also on an improved user experience more in line with the expectations of the prime users (internal customers), the civil servants who will be called to deliver the new digital services.
This way, “change” is not anymore imposed on public sector employees, who become an active, positive driver of the transformation itself.
I was amazed by reading that companies like Deutsche Bahn are now actively engaging with their staff leveraging on agile approaches focused on the use of “rapid prototyping” in process redesign and process development cycles, while tech giants like IBM, are actively employing with their public sector customers “design thinking” techniques to accompany their customers’ employees in a discovery journey of how technology can be used to improve processes from the ground up. And this just to quote a number of examples.
There’s a way to do it better, … find it!
In conclusion, assuring a tighter level of inclusion and transparency, resulting in a stronger engagement from stakeholders in the past too often excluded from these projects, there is the chance to mitigate the risks of “resistance” to change caused by “fear of the unknown”, or by the difficulty to abstract from daily tasks, or even worse, by the unanswered questions on the benefits derived from digitalization (“digital” is not there to replace human beings, but to help them doing their job better!).
And it is a good feeling to realize how, thanks to this innovative blending of technology, behavioral sciences and design thinking, such promising results can be achieved in the deployment of new digital technologies for the delivery of public services (see S. S. Dawes, A. M. Cresswell, T. A. Pardo, “From “Need to Know” to “Need to Share”: Tangled Problems, Information Boundaries, and the Building of Public Sector Knowledge Networks”).