Tech priorities for government leaders and departments for 2022

Alan Warr discusses how the benefits available from the explosion of new technologies will be greatest for those government leaders who don’t just focus on the technology

A paradox of the Covid-19 pandemic, that we can now look back on with some amazement, was that as our citizens went into the first lockdown, the opposite happened for technology. Technologies that were under tight corporate controls were unlocked. Technologies for home working, for remote access to systems and for moving services on-line were suddenly needed to keep society running. And changes that would have taken months or years normally, took days or weeks. It is revealing that many of these technologies were proven and had been available for many years. They already had the power to transform organisations. Yet it took a pandemic to unlock that potential and drive adoption. It is truly amazing how these changes to work, organisation and services are now embedded and organisations cannot snap-back to pre-pandemic practices. The benefits are just too great!

Accelerating the digital transformation of public services
This revelation by the pandemic of a transformation deficit across most organisations is profoundly valuable because only part of the deficit was revealed. Many more transformation opportunities remain unrecognised. Most government leaders sense this intuitively. Most vendors and consultancies and technology commentators advocate endlessly on this potential.

But I believe there is an existential problem around how organisations make decisions about technology that explains that this transformation deficit is natural. Indeed, it takes outstanding leadership to overcome these natural limitations as they are hard-wired into our individual and collective psychology. Professor and decision-making guru, Daniel Kahneman, won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics for his research labelled ‘prospect theory’ within the field of behavioural economics. He found that decision-makers are more than twice as influenced by the prospect of failure, than by success. Technology governance typically requires business cases for digital transformation investments. They carefully lay out the pros and cons. But it’s the cons in the business cases and the natural aversion to loss that will influence stakeholders the most. Inevitably, valuable transformations get delayed until this loss aversion abates enough for progress to become possible.

The priority must therefore be for government leaders to overcome this natural, organizational bias away from rational decision-making towards loss aversion and release this reservoir of technology-enabled improvements. We saw some of these unlocked during the pandemic, and more remain available if government leaders can continue the courage they displayed then.

Anticipating the timing and impact of future technologies
Looking to future technologies there are good reasons to increase the attention given to them by government leaders at this time. Waves of new technology have been impacting organisations periodically for the last century. But innovation researchers have noticed something profound. The frequency of technology waves has been increasing exponentially and the rate of adoption has also been accelerating. The next decade will see many new technology waves sweep across our organisations. Many strategy consultancies and researchers are predicting that around 40% of work will be automated along with a roughly equal creation of new work opportunities based on these technologies.

It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the new technology waves in any detail, but you will have noticed that a host of new technology acronyms are entering the business lexicon at pace. Cloud services, software as a service (SaaS), low code software development, intelligent automation (IA), machine learning (ML), cyber-security, virtual reality (VR), wearable computing, internet of things (IOT) and mobile are some of the waves that have already arrived and are impacting now. Artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), blockchain, cryptocurrencies, 5G, computer vision and robotics are some of the waves that are arriving and all with profound impacts predicted. And some awesome technologies like quantum computing, direct brain to computer interfaces, smart glasses and the metaverse are still in the lab but progressing fast and so we can predict with confidence that the waves of technology will continue.

Undoubtedly the pandemic slowed innovation generally as leaders rightly focused on the emergency. But the global strategy consultancies are reporting, with some admiration, that the leaders of global corporations are coming out of the pandemic with ambitious digital transformation plans for exploiting this abundance of new technologies coming through. Government leaders must match their scale of ambition too if citizens are to also enjoy the benefits of these technologies when using public sector products and services.
These technology waves will have use cases and economic value unique for each organisation. Technology waves also combine for some complex use cases. But each wave is potentially transformational and in total they are revolutionary.

Government leaders need to ensure their organisations understand the unique impacts these technology waves will have for their own organisations, along with the optimal timings for adoption and to ready their organisations for the digital transformations to come. For leaders, it is perhaps the hardest of challenges requiring the humility to accept they don’t have the answers and instead to facilitate a sophisticated process that engages not just the IT professionals but everyone from all parts of the organisation. My own research found that performances on this are quite varied. But around 20 per cent of organisations employ such sophisticated approaches and these organisations achieve the highest levels of success from digital transformation.

Acknowledging the digital skills gap
Traditionally we have viewed people as being the flexible component of our organisations. Technology is traditionally viewed as harder to change. But the pandemic showed that something profound is happening. The IT industry has been moving its technologies into the cloud, delivered via the Internet using common web interfaces through any device. This enables technology to be deployed, changed, and scaled up or down much more easily. When the first wave of the pandemic forced people to work from home and turn to streaming media for their evening entertainment, the telcos dramatically increased the capacity of the Internet. Tech companies rapidly scaled up their services too. Microsoft’s video meeting platform, Teams, scaled by over 4,000 per cent in a few weeks. Other applications like on-line learning platforms or tele-consultation platforms in health were also scaled similarly. Looking back this was an impressive engineering achievement.

But the people side of digital transformation surfaced some critical gaps. New business phrases like ‘you’re still on mute’, ‘can you all see my screen now’ and ‘you were breaking up’ all livened up our new on-line meetings as we developed the basic skills for remote working. Those without the required digital skills struggled. And recent research from Microsoft on 60,000 of their workers found that whilst the productivity of knowledge workers increases when they can work remotely, creativity and innovation are important areas that suffer. And the skills to organise remote workers to achieve innovation using on-line collaboration platforms is far from understood yet.

Government leaders should now move the digital skills problem higher up their agendas. My own research – perhaps unsurprisingly - found that an organisation’s capabilities to use technology is a key determinant of its success in digital transformations. The digital skills of both the staff delivering services and the citizens using them, now need developing ahead of the revolutionary changes to work and services coming through. It starts with measuring the digital skills gaps and then fielding programmes to close them. I believe that generally as a society and within our organisations we are dramatically underestimating the digital skills gap and the scale of effort needed to close it. A search of Google reveals an abundance of technical skills training but very little available that empowers people to apply technology themselves to use cases within their specialist work and services. Organising that localised training will fall to each organisation individually.

Hybrid leadership will be key
In the 1980s, at the dawn of digital transformations, research sponsored by the British Computer Society at Oxford University by Professor Michael Earl found that people with hybrid skills in both business and IT were key to effective digital transformations. This discovery has held true throughout all the waves of technology and will be true for the revolutionary changes now underway. Technology is now too important to be left to technologist alone. Business and technology are converging. Almost all organisations are now digital, fully or in part. In realising the potential for digital transformation, government leaders will need hybrid leadership.

Leaders choose to work in government services because they want to make a difference to people’s lives. This abundance of new technologies offers an amazing opportunity to deliver on that ambition. Leading digital transformation is not easy for sure, but my research found that those organisations that were most successful were far from perfect. The priority for government leaders must be to step up and be the best hybrid leaders they can be and encourage others by their example and values.

Dr. Alan Warr PhD is a digital transformation specialist and outgoing chair of the Consultancy Specialist Group at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. The opinions in this article are his own.

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