Digital transformation means doing the hard yards

Women Computer

It’s so easy to understand the benefits of being digital that we can be fooled into thinking that getting to digital must be easy, too. Unfortunately, digital business transformation requires hard work, especially for government organizations.

Government organizations haven’t survived by welcoming change. In fact, their mandate in legislation and regulation is to maintain themselves, as-is, with their hierarchies, procedures and cultures intact. And there’s no sense criticizing the people within the government for that mandate; it’d be like criticizing tigers for having stripes or porcupines for having quills. It’s in their nature. Still, if we want to bring government into the 21st century, then we need to understand, and then neutralize, the three big barriers to transformation:

1) Inappropriate Acquisition

Inappropriate acquisition policies and practices create highly prescriptive solution specifications (rather than requirements) in an attempt to standardize the inputs for lower cost and higher ease of comparison. And this approach has its place when buying commodity products. However, digital transformation services are anything but commodities. Each potential partner offers a differentiated set of value enablers and approaches. Forcing all proposals into a common structure reduces that value to the lowest common denominator.

Moreover, the model used to divide the solution into categories is typically based on a 20th Century approach that fragments the user journey between the different vendors along two axes. Contracts are split between technical silos, even though modern, cloud-native solutions comprise the entire technology stack. Contracts are also typically split between different service elements using obsolete models like ITIL and COBIT. Worse, the contract locks in the scope of project at the start – when the least information is available – rather than building a prototype and discovering what users want.

2) Outmoded Governance

Laying on a heavy, waterfall-style of governance on IT projects for which it’s not suited slows down delivery and spreads out responsibility across boards and subcommittees. That means no one is held directly accountable for the success or failure of a project. There’s no way a board can understand the status and intent of a project from a 100-page risk document sent immediately before a governance meeting – but that’s exactly what is often expected.

Operational governance is often equally ineffective. It is focused on box-checking and compliance, not control. I’ve seen situations in which multiple overlapping change control boards impose different forms asking for the same information but in different layouts, causing both unnecessary duplication of effort and unwelcome transposition errors.

Governance reform means fully adopting Agile and Lean for novel, outward-facing problems. In Agile methodology, a small team bears full responsibility for delivery. Agile is the best methodology for new and novel problems, and especially for end-user facing software, where we frequently don’t know what the best solution will be until we actually discover it jointly with users.

3) Broken IT

“Broken IT” means ancient systems, using outdated proprietary technologies, and running a back-office with far too much manual processing. It is also typically entangled in layers of contracts and systems integrators. Which means it also is characterized by a heterogeneous sprawl of competing products, technologies, techniques and standards. I’ve seen way too many organizations where the IT estate looks like an archeological dig, with one of every IT product ever made going back to the System 360, and none of it properly maintained or kept up to date. The level of technical debt is often 10-20 times the size of the IT budget.

From a productivity perspective, too many government organizations have employees who use state-of-the art smartphones at home for recreation, while waiting half an hour for their PC to boot up at work. And they had to leave that smartphone in a locker when they arrived at the office, so they are out of touch with the real world and out of reach for their loved ones when an emergency occurs.

Actually getting to digital

Organizations can’t make the switch to digital if they don’t address these problems. And it’s a lot harder than you might think. But it is possible for organizations to transform themselves. Doing so takes three steps.

1) Transformation requires a clear vision of digital

Start by developing your digital strategy and purpose. Do you have a compelling vision? Have you communicated your digital vision and strategy to the public so you can attract the ideal employees and partners moving forward? Once you have, start reimagining the full journey citizens / consumers take to access your services. That means:

  • understanding what your citizen/consumer is actually trying to get done and making it as simple as possible to do it
  • providing a consistent citizen/consumer journey across service entry points
  • updating citizens/consumers in real time on their status

Now automate and optimize back-office processes that support the citizen/consumer journey so the transaction can be processed without manual intervention – or “straight through”. Augment the processes with scalable, disposable digital platforms for commodity services, like notification and payment, which support the journey. Using third party platforms makes it easier to quickly scale up now, and replace them later with better offerings as they appear. It also frees up your IT team to focus on digital transformation instead of IT plumbing.

2) Transformation requires radical internal change

Transformation also means breaking down bureaucratic barrier. That effort includes:

  1. building an acquisition process that operates in days, not months
  2. adopting Agile and Lean methodologies when dealing with novel, user-centered problems
  3. putting in appropriate governance, suited to the problem at hand and the economics of cloud, not one-size-fits all governance from the age of ITIL and big CapEx
  4. knowing when to build, when to rent, and when to use open source
  5. radically upskilling your organization with digital and commercial talent
  6. abolishing the divide between digital and IT, so you take into account the whole user journey

These changes produce an IT conveyor belt to create new and experimental services, evolve them into industrial strength capabilities, and then eventually move them onto commodity platforms for efficiency. This approach has the whole organization operating at digital speed.

3) Transformation requires determination

Finally, transformation requires determination and leadership. Transforming by consensus, or by an occasional Hackathon, doesn’t work. What does work is making fundamental changes to the structure and processes of your organization. If you don’t have the determination and authority to make those changes, you’re wasting your resources – and everyone’s time – talking about it. Digital success requires a clear vision of how to thrive in the internet economy, underpinned by the culture, skills and the leadership to implement it.

Digital is about much more than just learning or implementing a technology—it’s a vast cultural change in the way we work. A complete digital transformation involves empowering employees, optimizing business processes, and reimagining how employees work with citizens/consumers and collaborate internally.


Taking the Complexity Out of Regulatory Governance in an Era of Digital Transformation

Accelerating digital transformation: Overcoming the illusion of expertise

Government executives: On being 21st century digital leaders


  1. […] Digital Transformation Means Doing the Hard Yards […]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Digital transformation means doing the hard yards […]


  3. […] Digital transformation means doing the hard yards […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: