Julie is a robot! The rise of digital automation

I love talking with colleagues, clients and partners about the new ideas and technologies that are defining our digital business world. As a result, I’m thrilled to be part of ‘Aurora’, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team, where we discuss some of the key topics which are going to shape our world in the next three to five years.

We love sharing our ideas, and we want to widen the conversation with like-minded people interested in listening to what we have to say. So we’ve turned our round table discussions into a series of podcasts and you can listen to the first one where we focus our attention on digital automation – the displacement of human work by machines (or robots), the impact it’s having and the resulting societal challenges.

We discuss “Julie” Richard Potter’s ‘virtual assistant’ who – alongside the likes of ‘Siri’ and ‘Cortana’ – demonstrates an area of robotic technology that’s transforming the workplace, and Ben Gilburt’s interesting experience of a webchat with a high-profile media company. This began as an obvious interaction with a robot then, when his questions became too complex, in stepped a real person which posed the question, how and when does human intervention take place within a robotic process?

We talk about a specific example in the insurance industry where regulatory reports could be compiled using automated intelligence. Although each report would contain different data and results, the language used would be similar across every report provoking a potentially irrational response from the regulators that the reports weren’t acceptable.

These, and other questions around our readiness for faceless interactions with computers and whether robotics as simply another delivery channel would meet customer expectations, is discussed in our podcast, “Julie is a robot!”

To learn more about Aurora, and the six topics that we are researching, read our brief opinion paper on the world ‘beyond digital’.

  1. Digital automation
  2. Augmented human
  3. My Data
  4. Disintermediation
  5. Securing the net
  6. Hyper innovation

What are your thoughts about robotics and the future of digital? Leave a comment below or contact the Aurora horizon scanning team by email

Digital: the new competitive advantage

Companies across different sectors are searching for the right ways to exploit digital ways of working and technology to sustain and grow their profitability.

But is the key to maximising the strategic potential of digital actually about subverting this traditional view of company performance? Here are some ideas…

Digital as a market transformer

Amazon has never been about short term profitability – in fact despite its massive revenue growth (reportedly up 21% to $89.9 billion in 2014) over the last twenty years its profits have remained inconsistent. Rather, it’s pursued a diversification strategy by using emerging technologies to penetrate and innovate different markets (including on-line retailing, cloud hosting and media distribution).

This strategic application of digital-enabled market transformation is creating new forms of customer demand and supply chain processes that few competitors can effectively respond to.

Furthermore, not only did Amazon legitimise on-line retailing as a viable sales channel, its focus on revenue/market share growth has empowered it to innovate the whole end-to-end customer experience (to the point where even the rapid delivery of goods using drones looks feasible).

As a result some competitors are adopting or adapting elements of this approach. For example, on-line supermarket Ocado has invested in digital technology to automate its supply chain and use these savings to drive its price competitiveness. Argos is also making an investment in transforming the physical retail experience by trialling integrated stores with Sainbury’s and is now offering same day home delivery for goods ordered on-line.

Arguably, had Amazon primarily pursued a strategy of profitability (over investing in growth through diversification) it would have severely limited the competitive advantage offered to it by digital.

Digital as an asset

Cross platform mobile messaging service WhatsApp was bought by Facebook for $16 billion last year. At first glance it’s not entirely clear how Facebook will make a sufficient return on this massive investment given market saturation of such applications and its limited potential for short-term monetisation (its product-focused approach means it doesn’t carry ads; revenue is generated by an $1 annual subscription fee against low operating costs).

However, there is so much more to Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp than exploiting its short-term profitability – Facebook now has complete control of this rapidly growing digital-enabled asset. At time of writing, WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging app with an estimated 900 million global user base with an additional 1 million new users registering each month.

Competitors have no direct access to this huge social media channel and the customer behaviour data it generates – Facebook is using strategic asset acquisition to create an unbeatable barrier of entry and opportunities for future profitable growth.

Digital as a public service 

Google offers a suite of cloud-based products and services, many free at point of use. Accepting there are usage limits in place (for example, high traffic websites incur fees for using Google Maps APIs) – it can be argued they provide benefits to people that cannot feasibly be delivered directly by the public sector. Consider the educational value of Google Earth for instance – a public sector organisation would probably face a range of political, economic and technology challenges if it tried to implement this tool by itself.

This approach to digital-enabled public services blurs the corporate and community boundaries of Google’s brand; fostering goodwill from its customers and employees alike (so driving demand for its advertising platforms and other paid services while intrinsically motivating employee performance). Google eschews the potential short time profitability of its products and services for altruistic reasons that ultimately confer greater competitive advantage.

If you would like more information about how digital transformation can benefit your organisation please contact the Sopra Steria Digital Practice.

Measuring the success of digital transformation

The Civil Servants’ view

There is no lack of guidance for civil servants. For example there is the HM Treasury guidance on production and approval of business cases, the Magenta Book guidance on evaluation and the Cabinet Office spending controls on digital and IT. Recognising that the requirements of a digital project can change rapidly, as user needs are understood, HM Treasury and the Government Digital Service released supplementary guidance on Agile project approval processes.

But what happens in the real world when legacy government appraisal methods meet the reality of delivering digital projects with an agile mindset?

How confident are civil servants that they can define what success looks like?

In our Digital Trends Survey undertaken earlier this year, we set out to understand how civil servants view the progress of digital transformation within the civil service. Many responses highlighted the benefits associated with digital transformation, including efficiencies through channel shift and enhanced user satisfaction. But nearly half of the respondents had failed to gather the customer information that is so vital for monitoring and evaluation. Others pointed to deficiencies in the identification of Key Performance Indicators, as it was difficult to lock down system requirements at the start and manage delivery against a pre-determined timetable.

Many civil servants – including three at the very top of the service – reported that there was no measure of success for the progress of digital transformation

No measure of success… take a minute to let that sink in.

Can Agile and government project assurance work together?

Yes. Our experience is that good governance in agile can empower teams to follow programme management methodologies as they were intended to be used. Examples include regular project boards comprising client senior managers and stakeholders as well as project managers to review progress and provide solutions to any issues and ensure resources are available. This is recognised in the guidance on Agile highlighted above, which suggests that civil servants need to rely more on observation and engagement within the team and with stakeholders, rather than paper-based reporting and document review.

But in many cases even the best guidance and a strong central mandate will not be sufficient to catalyse the adoption of robust business cases and agile implementation methods. Digital leaders have a key role in promoting the advantages of a business case that contains empirical evidence and clear targets for improvement. They must emphasise that failure to consider monitoring and evaluation early enough can severely limit those options and the reliability of any evidence of impact. And incentives have to be put in place, with guidance on the level of detail required at each stage depending on the scale or complexity of the project. For example the HM Treasury ‘Five Case Model’ provides several excellent templates, but more training is need to understand the methods.

Moving from process improvement to measuring outcomes

Methods for gauging success in agile delivery in government are still rare. However better impact monitoring is critical. Large-scale implementation of digital solutions, and the business re-organisation that accompanies it, requires up-front investment. The benefits of digitization will take time and be felt outside the organisations that bear the costs of delivery (including in health and social care and across the criminal justice system).

Impact monitoring and business case methodologies will have to be developed that provide a comprehensive calculation of the various costs, benefits (including cashable savings) and beneficiaries. Or that illustrate more general benefits for society or individuals, even if these benefits cannot immediately be expressed in quantitative terms. Otherwise, implementation of projects will falter on the resistance of institutions to contribute to the costs of delivery or give up existing benefits (e.g. revenue streams from the provision of public sector information).

We’ll repeat the digital trends survey next year to understand if civil servants are coming to terms with the need to measure digital outcomes. And in future blogs I’ll be highlighting the type of cost savings, efficiency gains and quality improvements that can be achieved through digital and technology projects and how they can be measured.

In the meantime I’d be interested in your views on how to successfully define success and monitor the progress of digital projects, so why not leave a comment below or contact me by email.

More About the Digital Trends Survey

We commissioned Dods – a leading parliamentary communications organisation – to survey civil servants in Central Government and capture their views around the Digital Transformation agenda, the impact it’s had on them and the services provided to citizens. We had a fantastic response rate of 2,374 across all grades and Government departments. You can read more about the survey on our website. And you can read more about the digital skills gap that civil servants highlighted in our survey, and the implications for the civil service, in my last blog.

Bridging the digital skills gap in Government

Expectations of Government services are rising. Citizens want and expect digital services that are responsive to their needs. As a result civil servants need to be aware of the opportunities available through this digital world. This means fundamentally rethinking policy making and delivery, becoming more networked, transparent and focussed on user needs. Delivering this rethink needs new skills that can blend the digital world with traditional Civil Service policy making and implementation.

2015 Digital Trends Survey – some key findings

Earlier this year we asked Dods Research to capture the views of civil servants around their ability to effectively deliver digital transformation. The survey results testify to some progress in skills development, highlighting the commitment of civil servants to increasing their knowledge, but also flags that a lack of digital capability is a major barrier to successful digital transformation.

37% of respondents believe they lack adequate skills training for their roles

Over two-thirds of those surveyed thought that the skills support they received was not adequate, a slightly higher proportion than those who said they had received appropriate training.

digital skills table1
Figure 1 (Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015)

Figure 1: We asked civil servants to rate their agreement with the statement that they received adequate digital skills training to do their job.  Civil servants were split on whether they had received adequate training with over 1 in 10 strongly disagreeing

The challenge for government is to build flexible skills and capabilities across the civil service. At a basic level this means every civil servant understanding how digital tools can improve the way they work through, for example, the use of social media to engage with users. It extends to the use of data for policy modelling, evaluation, data analytics and data mining to target improvements and monitor impact. And because services will continue to be commissioned from outside government, the civil service also needs staff with good commissioning / contracting skills and project management capabilities within the digital delivery space.

The most common methods of skill acquisition were informal, including best practice sharing, self-directed study and learning on the job

digital skills table2
Figure 2 (Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015)

Figure 2: Digital skills tend to be acquired through learning that occurs outside the formal learning system

This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, as civil servants are entitled to at least five days a year investment in learning and development. This is met through a wide range of forms of learning, from e-learning, traditional training and other development activities. And the Government Digital Service (GDS) is offering more detailed and practical learning and development programmes for civil servants in specialist digital roles and in other roles that are expected to work closely with digital teams.

44% of respondents said that a lack of digital training for staff was impeding the move towards digital public services (only just behind a lack of resources)

digital skills table3
Figure 3 (Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015)|

Figure 3: Lack of digital skills is the second biggest obstacle to digital public services, only just behind a lack of resources, and twenty per cent ahead of any other factor

Departments have drawn on resources from the GDS and their ‘digital bench’ of digital specialists and specialist digital recruitment services. While many departments – such as HMRC, Home Office and Ministry of Justice – have established internal teams, others will continue to depend on GDS or face persistent challenges in recruiting enough skilled permanent staff.

The more pressing risk is that a skills deficit will affect implementation, with government missing opportunities to integrate systems and operations and wasting resources. The civil service must attract, develop and retain people who contribute with their skill sets to the achievement of strategic digital government objectives. It will also need to work with the private sector to supply teams of people focussed on addressing specific needs and outcomes (and not just bodyshopping!). And both the civil service and private sector will need to regularly evaluate the impact of emerging technologies, trends and projects on staff, to assess skill gaps and ensure the development of new types of organisational learning.

Why not share your view in the comments below about your experience with digital skills in Government?

More about the Digital Trends Survey

We’ll repeat the digital trends survey at regular intervals to track the progress of the civil service as it seeks to meet the ambitious commitments made in the Civil Service Reform Plan. And in future posts I will be highlighting other issues raised in the survey including understanding of users (including digital exclusion) and the setting of robust and relevant measures of success. So watch this space!

Read the full survey report ‘2015 Digital Trends Survey‘.

Softening the big bang

Change is good! Poorly communicated change is bad…

How often have you been in a situation where a business change has been forced upon you, has been presented as a fait accompli? How did it make you feel? Included? Receptive? Positive? Ready to run with it?

Probably not.

By its nature a digital transformation project will have an impact on a lot of people, processes and technology. So how do we communicate change in a way that feels less of a “sucker punch”? Some of the terminology we use doesn’t necessarily help. Look again at the first sentence of this paragraph where I use the word impact.

impact

noun

1. the striking of one thing against another; forceful contact; collision:

The impact of the colliding cars broke the windshield.

Do we want to break the people, processes or technology? Erm, no. We talk of “big bang” implementations. That phrase also raises stress levels. Just because a change needs to be implemented in a short timescale doesn’t mean that it will be stressful, out of control, badly planned, a failure.

Planning change is important. Communicating change is paramount to success

So what techniques can we use to manage the successful communication and buy-in needed for a programme of work to be understood, well received and, dare I say it, applauded?

Don’t be afraid to share

With many modern development projects taking advantage of alternative methods of delivery – for example Agile, which encourages open communication, collaboration and working towards the “common goal” – those teams working well together is key to the successful delivery of the project or product. However, it is equally important to share the knowledge, successes and, potentially, failures to a wider business and technical community.

Early and frequent communication can be used to generate a “buzz” around the delivery simply by showing/informing those that will be affected by the change how progress is being made and how their working life will be improved by the transformation. I’d even go as far as to suggest that some employees will be excited by the difference it may make to their customer’s lives: for example, introducing a mobile case management solution to a social worker that reduces the time needed to update notes while offering a more secure way of carrying or accessing case information, may result in less stress about case file security and generate more time in their day to have higher quality face to face meetings with clients.

Some ideas for information sharing:

  • Expanded ‘show & tells’ – a key part of the Agile methodology is to host regular sessions where the latest features of the product are demoed to the product owner (the project’s main business representative). These can be extended to include wider stakeholders or end users who may bring some valuable critique to the process
  • Programme highlight dashboard – where highlight reporting is generated for key stakeholders, is there really much additional effort needed to pick out key information that can be shared with the entire business?
  • Corporate Social Media – do you have an internal collaboration site, for example Yammer? Set up a programme-specific group and ask the team members to post updates on milestones met, challenges overcome, etc.
  • Don’t forget the traditional channels – these could include notice boards or paper flyers even if they’re simply used to point people to an online medium

Identify your digital champions

Sharing information using traditional or modern methods is one thing but identifying people that can talk about the project with knowledge and enthusiasm can be a great way to disseminate information virally through their existing networks. We call these people ‘digital champions’:

Digital champions inform and inspire people to embrace business transformation

Identification of these people can be a challenge in itself but introducing and then nurturing an open channel where the programme team encourages anyone to come and visit the team at work, ask questions or to attend the ‘show & tells’ should help draw out those who are genuinely interested. It’s important not to assume that you know who your best advocates will be. Traditional programme structures may put communications responsibility at the door of senior managers or business stakeholders. I would agree that they have their part to play, but if you’re a front line employee hearing someone enthuse about an upcoming business change, you may listen more intently to a colleague than a senior manager.

Do something!

Whatever method of communication you settle on isn’t as important as making sure you do something to educate, inform, and inspire those immediately and peripherally affected by change.

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family” – Kofi Annan

Don’t we all feel better when we know more about a subject? Let me hear your thoughts by posting a comment below.

The benefits of combining competitive and digital strategy together

As digital ways of working and technology continues to penetrate all sectors, organisations are faced with a range of strategic opportunities and threats impacting their competitive advantage (a key one being the potential impact of digital transformation on their non-current assets).

So what tools can organisations use to strategically respond to their rapidly changing competitive environment? Given the disruptive, unpredictable nature of digital it may feel like a completely new approach is required. But arguably the fundamentals of competitive strategy to identify, choose and implement strategic options to achieve differentiation and cost optimisation are still valid – the difference is how they should be applied in a digital context (for example using Porter’s Five Competitive Forces to analyse Digital Disruptors).  Here are some further examples:

Please note: these tools have strengths and weaknesses – there are no absolutes in strategy development. Their value comes from understanding, tailoring and selectively combining these imperfect approaches together to gain the right critical insight about digital and its impact on an organisation’s competitiveness.

Value chain analysis:  A model (defined by Michael Porter in the mid Eighties) that enables an organisation to identify the primary and supporting activities its business units perform to deliver its products or services. Such activities in isolation may have limited value but when combined become sources of competitive advantage.

This approach can be used to understand how an user centric Agile approach to digital transformation can positively impact an organisation’s operating model. This is because it identifies how using user experience design to make improvements to the “front end” customer experience can only deliver sustainable benefits if business unit activities effectively and efficiently support such change – the application of value chain analysis and user experience design as an integrated response to the challenges of competing digitally.

Resource based view: Popularised by Robert M. Grant in the early Nineties; this approach assesses how an organisation’s resources are sources of competitive advantage based on their fit to market needs and the ability of competitors to imitate or provide substitutes for them. Arguably organisations with high demand for their differentiated resources hold strong positions in a market.

Such an assessment can be used to understand how an organisation can maximise the competitive advantage of its greatest resources – its people – by empowering them to effectively adopt (and adapt) digital ways of working and technology. By applying the resource based view to inform talent development, organisational design and cultural values, an organisation can differentiate itself through its unique (i.e. difficult to imitate) people resources skilled in digital.

Balanced scorecard performance measurement: Developed in detail by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton et al in the Nineties; it applies four different, interrelated organisational perspectives to measure strategic and operational performance:

If the right, well trained and motivated people (HR view) are doing the right things (operations view); customers are delighted (marketing view) and the organisation is profitable (finance view)

It provides a combined holistic view of an organisation’s strengths and weaknesses in delivering competitive advantage.

An organisation can use such perspectives to consider how using different digital ways of working and technology will impact its sources of competitive advantage. This could include how a Chief Digital Officer could potentially address challenges C-Suite may have about Digital Transformation.

If you would like more information about how competitive strategy tools can help your organisation maximise the benefits of digital transformation please contact the Sopra Steria Digital Practice.

Why I signed the Digital Inclusion Charter

Like so many others, I spent most of my commute this morning in the digital world – powered by the smartphone technology in my hand and the invisible tendrils of communication in the air all around us.

As I left the house, I remembered my still snoozing son was collecting an award at his school this morning so sent him a message of support and a request for excited updates later in the day.  A quick check of the transport network showed my train was on time, but I was not – so I picked up my walking pace to ensure I didn’t miss it.  Once on the train, a reminder prompted me to pay an outstanding bill – a few clicks, then done.  Leaving time to review my diary for the day, coordinate a weekend outing with a few friends via Facebook (clearly I’m getting old) and manage a quick scan of various  news-feeds all before the train pulled into London.  Whilst walking to catch my usual bus, my Fitbit app pings me – I am close to hitting my weekly step target but need to push – so I ditch the bus and decide to walk to the office instead!

Many of us will have our own variations on this kind of journey – each with different apps, activities and platforms supporting the engagements we choose – but all with the common thread that being ‘being connected’ is now a ubiquitous part of our daily lives.

Being connected feels great…

Being connected feels like the future…

Being connected empowers us to make more efficient use of our time and more informed choices…

… and of course it now drives our expectations.  When our retailers began offering online services, we expected our banks to.  And when they did, why not our insurers, our healthcare providers, our travel agents,  our schools?  Now we expect it everywhere, including our Public Services.

Millions of people interact with government every year. We pay our taxes and apply for tax credits. We look for jobs and make benefit claims. We need passports and driving licenses. Last year over 1.7 billion government transactions were completed at a cost of £7.1 billion and over three quarters of those transactions were completed online.

This is great news for those who are connected… BUT there are over 7 million adults in the UK who are not. Over 7 million adults defined as digitally excluded, primarily because of a lack of access to the internet.

7 million people. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

There are digitally excluded people within all communities of the UK but older people and those that are economically disadvantaged are more likely to be so.  There are also 11 million adults in the UK who need some assistance to interact with government online.

The implications for government are enormous.  The estimated benefit to the UK economy of getting one million new people online (assuming 70% become regular internet users) is £1.5 billion. If we enabled the digitally excluded to change just one of the interactions that they have with government from a face-to-face or paper interaction to an online interaction the government would save £900 million a year.

The implications for society are equally significant.  Every consumer who is online saves on average £560 a year by shopping around and looking at deals.  The poorest families could save over £300 if they were online[4]. Children who do not have access to the internet are at a disadvantage – over a million children’s exam results will be on average a grade lower than their peers every year because they do not have internet access at home.

Severe implications. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

In our day jobs at Sopra Steria we deliver technology and business services across the public sector trying to help government make all our lives better and safer.  Across both public and private sector,  we have great staff with valuable digital skills and an in-depth understanding of the needs of their many users in many walks of life. Underpinning that, sustainability has been a core part of our ethos in Sopra Steria for many years.

  • We actively support local communities with initiatives including working with local schools to support their technology education programmes, encouraging girls to consider careers in IT,  offering technology and business apprenticeships to local young people, supporting communities and charities through our annual Community Matters activities, and in India, helping improve the lives of over 66,000 children by giving them access to education – including IT education
  • We’ve cut our carbon emissions by 48% in 6 years, made all our Datacentre services CarbonNeutral® by default since 2013 and scored a perfect score of 100A in CDP Climate Change in both 2013 and 2014 – joining the CDP’s  ‘A List Report’ as a result
  • We are also an active member and sponsor of Digital Leaders in the UK and work with that community looking at all aspects of the Digital Transformation agenda including the challenges of digital exclusion

All of our experiences and initiatives have shown us the real difference people can make when they work together – the digital inclusion challenge cannot be solved by any single person or organisation alone, but I believe it can be solved by many people and organisations working together…

We must fix it together. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

Are you signing the Digital Inclusion Charter? Leave a message below or contact me by email.