Digital transformation is about mindsets, not skills

FutureGov has been designing better public services for the last ten years. We’ve learnt a lot, and one part continues to ring true — you can’t transform a service without transforming the organisation it sits within.

Transforming an organisation is fundamentally about working with people to help them do new things and work in new ways. There’s a whole industry built on workplace training with courses, curricula and training providers to fit almost any skills gap. But when it comes to digital transformation, this way of thinking falls short in several ways.

Traditional courses can’t meet the pace of change

The speed at which tech is developing moves a million times faster than learning curricula can be developed. By the time a course is written, never mind taught, it’s out of date. Software is constantly updated, so learning something once isn’t enough.

They teach the wrong things

If learning something once isn’t enough, we have to focus on teaching people how to learn. When a system is updated or a company adopts something new, it shouldn’t be a shock for employees. Adapting to new ways of doing things must be the norm. This presents a problem for a significant part of the training sector, in part because it’s doing them out of sellable courses.

When Citizens Advice moved from Windows to Google we ran it like a military operation. There was marketing, there was training, there were staff champions. It was a big shift. But after the initial move was done and the basics were covered, we focused on helping people to explore all the cool new things they could do.

Teaching people to move from Windows to Google (or vice versa, other providers are available 😉) is one thing. Helping them to feel confident Googling something every time their computer doesn’t do what they want it to is quite another. We had to help people understand that the answers were out there and to feel confident that they could find the answer themselves and bring it back into the organisation for everyone’s benefit. This was a real shift in behaviour and thinking, which brings me to my next point.

We need to think about mindsets, not just skills

There’s a big difference between doing digital and being digital. To get people beyond the doing — using new digital tools and building digital layers over analogue systems — and towards being digital, they need to adopt new behaviours and ways of thinking.

At FutureGov, we characterise good digital services as having these qualities:

21st century public services important qualities

This is what good services do. It’s also how good ‘digital’ organisations, and the people in them, need to behave.

This mindset shift is big. It affects how you approach problems at a fundamental level. It helps people to explore what the internet can do in a really transformational sense. It’s a shift in mindset.

How do you teach a shift in mindset?

This is the question we’ve been tackling at FutureGov. You can’t really teach a shift in mindset. It’s not something you get from a textbook or online course. You get it from experiences. Seeing and feeling is believing. It’s also really important that it’s reinforced regularly.

I’ve seen too many incidents of great teams, working in transformative ways, crushed by the organisation in which they work. Sometimes it’s a project management office which doesn’t understand an agile way of working. Sometimes it’s a senior leader who wants to see the results but isn’t willing to take the risk. It’s not enough to bring a small innovation/digital/design team into an organisation and hope they’ll do the job alone.

You can’t change services without changing people’s mindsets. But you can’t change people’s mindsets without changing organisations.

Digital thinking for everyone

Digital thinking for everyone means taking digital behaviours beyond design or digital teams. It means bringing digital thinking into project management offices and corporate service teams. It means HR teams have to know how to support digital behaviours, and leadership teams need to understand how to create an environment where those behaviours can thrive.

Here’s an example. What would an expense claims policy that embraces those digital behaviours look like? For a start, it would work on any device. Instead of carrying bundles of receipts, we could snap a photo to submit on our phones. It might ditch the rules on how much you can spend on co-designed principles and what responsible claims look like. And to make sure we stick to those principles, expense claims might be transparent across the company. Transparency makes the discussion between the line manager and colleague checking easier and in the spirit of following principles.

Doing expenses like this stops people from getting hung up on the minutiae of rules and helps them to see the bigger picture. It refocuses them away from process and onto outcomes. Most importantly, applies to expenses policy but it also applies to client-facing services. It helps staff to experience the behaviours we expect them to work by.

FutureGov works with partners to do this kind of change in organisations every day. We’re also developing more structured learning programmes to help people across organisations get into the digital mindset. This is about learning through doing. We help teams learn this mindset shift while making changes in their organisation in both client-facing services and internal systems. We help leadership teams to understand what their staff are learning and, crucially, how they can support that change in small, symbolic as well as structural ways.

This is a shift in culture and a shift in mindset. It’s what transformation is all about.

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