System change – not just the speech about the future

Some doodling about system change

I have had a really interesting couple of days the week before last at Labworks and then at the MADwData event in Sheffield – both excellent in different ways. I meant to blog last weekend but Life intervened in a very pleasant way so here is my belated contribution.

But firstly – have you noticed that innovation is the word used within the system and external change is talked about as disruption? Some people do talk about disrupting their own organisation (I’m one of them!) but the thread that might better unite the two is a discussion about what we want to preserve from the old order and take into the new.

At both events there was as ever lots of talk about system leadership and culture change – and the sense that the future is going to be more open, networked and digital – in my terms the network society. There was a lot of alignment around the sense of what that future might look like but not uncomfortable detailed conversations about where our values might diverge instead of coming together. So far so unconference…..and I mean that in a good way – there is lot of time for worrying about the detail if we can just get stuff moving…

The brief for the talk at MADwData was “Open data in digital services” but I actually decided to talk around the subject a bit as there was a lot of subject expertise in the room and I thought it more useful to draw some wider observations.

I tried to make three main points:

  • We need to consider technology as coming in disruptive waves and if the next one is around personalization of data and services then it would help speed up our shift to the network society if open data teams were also to considered how to make it person centred
  • We need to work hard to engage people with data and help them use it to answer their questions not ours – This links to contributions from other speakers – it was great to seen working with communities as being a theme
  • That we need to view open data as part of a democratic system and that we should consider what purposes in plays in that system

I also made my usual plug for digital civic space and the need to shift our infrastructure to create very different kinds of online environments.

It was on this point which I got a righteous challenge from @paulconnell who basically said ‘we’ve all given the future is marvellous speech – how are you proposing we do it’. Happily I have just moved to an absolutely huge provider of such things to work on this question so I had being thinking about this – here is my answer (or a tidied up version):

I’m framing this as a system change challenge and clearly you need leadership to achieve that – I think one of the interesting questions is whether this needs to be institutional leadership or more external and disruptive. My feeling that that what you need to do is to create strong connections between these. I think you are actually after an alliance of the people who ‘get it’.  System change also means defining the scope and purpose of your system as well as understanding what your levers of change are – what can you shift?

However once you have that in place there are a few system change type activities to kick off:

  • Culture & behaviors – we all talk about culture change but who is looking at the detailed stuff of workforce planning, staff incentives, performance management systems and recruitment strategies? I am sure that someone in your organization is – shouldn’t they be in your gang? But its more than that: I am increasingly of the mind that unless you align your staff, community and democratic engagement strategies (side bar on this – its not just Local Gov that need to think about democratic engagement now) then you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back. A curmudgeonly voluntary sector can be just as hampering as an intransigent HR department.
  • Refocusing your infrastructure – most of your enterprise systems will be making you feel a bit sad if you look at them in comparison to ‘digitally native’ tech (unless you are doing cool things with Socrata and the like which looked very exciting). It’s probably not going to help just tormenting your enterprise architect – instead you need to work out a longer-term plan which moves your infrastructure in the right direction. Isn’t this what your IT strategy does? Well yes – but my observation is that most IT strategies are trying to future proof the status quo rather than being ready to support a very different future. I don’t think this is the fault of the IT folks – I think we need to be able to articulate our future vision in a way which that can respond to – this is why I think digital leadership is so important
  • Getting the most out of new technologies. Innovation/disruption has a big part to play in this. The first two bullets are about getting the system ready to receive change then this last one is about exploring what that might really look like and getting into the detail of shaping it. Some of the stuff we saw at madwdata from Trafford Labs and others is exactly what is needed – and the PSLab event at Nesta showed the range of approaches being developed – I think the way in which you explore and develop ideas is pretty specific to place though there are generic models and approaches you can pick from as your starting point.

This is all very much linked to stuff I am working on at the moment so I will blog more once I have changed to develop some practical examples.  I want to try an base this around practical examples because as Paul said many of us have given the ‘the future is going to be marvellous’ speech.  I moved role to try and roll up my sleeves and do some of the work that is needed to bring it about – I will keep you posted.

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