2020: The Product Owner C-Suite?

A key source of competitive advantage for digital disruptors is their ability to effectively apply Agile ways of working to deliver increasingly responsive, personalised marketing offerings. Such success has triggered a wide debate about the suitability of the “traditional C-suite” to strategically lead and shape these new forms of organisational capability.

This can be evidenced by the emerging significance of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) as a key leadership role, the proposed re-invention of an organisation’s lead technologist as a Chief Internet of Things (IoT) Officer or even formally embedding continuous improvement in C-suite by hiring a Chief Process and Innovation Officer.

Although the maturity of these roles varies considerably (most large organisations in North America are expected to have a CDO in place within the next five years for example); they all share the same concept of C-suite defining and owning integrated capabilities that directly serve customers – something arguably not possible using its conventional functional silo structure of Finance, Marketing, Operations, HR etc.

This notion of the “Product Owner C-suite” is reflective of the disruptor’s approach to market; the use of Agile to remove barriers between senior management and sources of competitive advantage.

So what are the potential benefits of a Product Owner C-suite for an organisation? Here are some ideas…

Improved customer experience: By focusing C-suite accountability and responsibility directly on the performance and innovation of front-end products and services; frontline employees should be empowered to deliver a consistent, quality service to all customers.

Enhanced innovation/balanced risk: An iterative approach to continuous improvement, based on the rapid sharing of customer feedback between strategy and delivery teams, can enable these organisational stakeholders to adopt a more collaborative open approach to innovation strengthened by a balanced, informed appetite for shared risk.

Increased asset liquidity: Because a C-suite Product Owner has clearly defined ownership of an organisation’s resources and capabilities; he or she can make timely decisions about how these assets should be provisioned and managed – strategic decisions to procure or sell assets can potentially be made at tactical speed to drive cost optimisation.

Unique organisational learning: Although it would need to be sensitively managed; C-suite’s ability to use feedback and insights gained from applying the Agile approach “fail fast, fail often” to inform its decision making and delivery could be a source of considerable competitive advantage – a context specific, people-led learning process that competitors can’t directly imitate.

Integrated employee advocacy: C-suite can use the Product Owner role as a platform to positively promote its on-going commitment and passion to its organisation’s brand daily using marketing and social media channels. Not only does this form of top-down employee advocacy drive customer engagement, it can also intrinsically motivate employee performance.

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

Why gaining real insight into user needs is the key to great service design and delivery

If government is to deliver better services with less money, it needs to meet the public on their terms, offering services which users recognise as being for them, and accessible to them. Civil servants must put user needs at the heart of digital (and non-digital) service design and delivery. They have to be outward looking and pursue a match between what the user needs and what government can provide.

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Figure 1: 61% of civil servants either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that they had a good understanding of their typical service users or customers. Just 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement. Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015

In our Digital Trends Survey, undertaken earlier this year, we asked civil servants to assess how ready they are to deliver user-focused digital services. The good news is that government has come a long way since the days when ‘take it or leave it’ service delivery was commonplace. A majority of civil servants (66%) said they had a good understanding of their typical service users.

However understanding is not the same as insight

Insight is about developing a ‘deep truth’ about the user based on their behaviour, experiences, beliefs and needs, and then being able to bring about behavioural change. The survey results on user insight were mixed. While over half of civil servants said that they gathered information about service users, just 39% use custom data to help design services.

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Figure 2: 39% of civil servants either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that they use custom behaviour data to help design our services. Source: Sopra Steria and DODS Civil Service survey, 2015

A lack of insight will be particularly significant when delivering services for users without the ability, skills, motivation or trust to go online. We found that a significant minority of civil servants (36%) said that their customers or service users lacked the ability to use online services.

Putting ourselves into the shoes of the user – a quick guide

We recognise that the civil service is at the beginning of a journey and there is a challenge in unearthing user insights. Our User Experience (UX) consultants, using a kit bag of methods and tools, are able to slip into the customer’s shoes and understand the individual user experience in context. Here are some simple rules that they apply every day, which can get you started on the road to achieving real user insights:

  1. Kick off with UX research: the requirements of the end user are made explicit from the start. Throughout the project the team challenges business requirement with user needs. In the process the likelihood of being able to generate a win-win solution is enhanced (and trade-offs are made explicit)
  2. Target key users: an understanding of user demographics – gender, age, socio-economic group and lifestyle factors – must inform project design. Resources need allocating to desk research, user surveys, ethnography, focus groups
  3. Understand the context: there is no short-cut to meeting users and watching how they interact with a system or service on their turf. For example, we can consider the design needs of a community worker using a mobile application in their office, working with teachers in a school or with young parents in a Children’s Centre
  4. Accessible design is good design: users might not have a choice in interacting with a government service. So the relentless focus on user needs must address accessibility. This starts with an improvement in the quality of written content and extends to addressing issues of access, skills, motivation, trust and disability. Accessibility must never be an afterthought
  5. Capture and communicate what you learn: journeys mapping is a vital tool in revealing user behaviour and the end-to-end experience of accessing services. It will reveal important intersections and hand-offs between organisations and services. It allows the UX team to visualize a compelling story that creates empathy and understanding

Our experience shows that simple observation and engagement will challenge assumptions. It provides the rich insight needed to create something that both delights and engages the user. And the process never ends – iterative testing and updating of service designs based on feedback is best practice.

Your thoughts

Are you working on a digital transformation programme in government? Or working on a project that depends on putting user needs at the heart of policy-making or service delivery? Tell us what you think in the discussion thread below.

More about the Digital Trends Survey

In previous posts we’ve highlighted other issues raised in the survey including the setting of robust and relevant measures of success and digital skills. The full survey report ‘2015 Digital Trends Survey‘ is also available. And 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.

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.

How disruptors use digital transformation to gain sustainable competitive advantage

Digital disruptors like Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit are using digital ways of working and technology to aggressively take B2C market share from both big and small companies alike.

Right now they look unstoppable – but how did they did achieve such a feat and what can other sectors (especially those in the B2B space) learn from this experience?

One way to understand their success is to consider how they challenged – and then used – “Porter’s Five Forces” to gain competitive advantage…

(It’s also worth noting that the “Five Forces Model” was developed by Michael Porter in the late Seventies – digital and business Strategy are two sides of the same coin)

1. Threat of new entrants:  Digital disruptors have arguably penetrated markets where barriers of entry are relatively low for smaller companies (e.g. taxi hire, rental accommodation, home repairs, etc) but industrialisation of such services at a global level was previously thought unfeasible.

Yet these disruptors have succeeded at this level not by overcoming such barriers (like start-up/sunk costs, licences/rights acquisition and customer loyalty) but by mostly “subverting” them to deliver services at competitive prices.

For example; Uber provides a platform for customers to contact directly a driver located nearby – effectively eliminating (or replacing?) the established “middleman” taxi firm or other service provider competing in that area.

Uber doesn’t have to carry the costs of running a fleet of taxis, the majority of any local laws or regulations remain the risk of the driver/supplier, and switching costs for customers to use its service are virtually nil.  These barriers of entry have now become a threat to existing taxi firms because they impact their ability to compete with Uber on price and customer convenience.

2. Threat of substitute products or services: A challenge levelled at disruptors is that their commercial model could be easily imitated by other digital service providers.  But this is where they exploit first-mover advantage – they have already created large scale services used by millions of people; a customer could find rental accommodation using a new, different service for their long trip away to an unknown place but why bother when Airbnb is an existing reliable brand they trust?

3 & 4. Bargaining power of customers/buyers and suppliers: The disruptor’s role is to provide a digital service that brings buyers and suppliers together at the right price – TaskRabbit is a marketplace that gives customers and contractors access to the same information (including requested service, desired price and ranked supplier performance) to enable an informed purchasing decision for trade services. TaskRabbit’s success comes from effectively using buyer and supplier bargaining power to drive better collaboration between customers and contractors rather than itself being challenged by such competitive forces.

5. Intensity of competitive rivalry:  A digital disruptor turns competitive rivalry on its head by making it a lot harder for incumbent players to strategically identify, assess and respond to the threats they pose.  Uber, Airbnb and TaskRabbit don’t buy or supply the services in the sectors they compete in – they are not direct competitors in a traditional sense.  Rather, they are convenient intermediaries that offer customers faster, smarter ways to buy from suppliers.  Their strength also comes from them using their established global brands at a local level in markets where switching costs are low for customers.

What could this mean for B2B service providers?  It should be noted that the disruptors explored here compete in providing B2C high volume, low risk “simple” services. Conversely B2B providers supply high volume, high risk “complex” services requiring them to have a deep historical understanding of the sectors they serve. Such entrenched capabilities give these existing players the strategic opportunity to combine their skills and experience with digital to create new services disruptors can’t imitate.

What strategic risks and opportunities do you think organisations face as digital continues to penetrate all sectors? Please share your feedback below.

For more information about digital transformation please contact the Sopra Steria Digital Practice.