The Killer App in Digital Transformation is Human Connection

“We can’t just look to technology or even pure processes, to drive transformation.”

Becoming a digital government is no longer an option. This is why governments are throwing trillions of dollars at new technologies, in order to build and deliver new digital-native experiences for our ministries, agencies, and constituencies. Accordingly, we’ve seen the massive rise of cloud computing, open source technologies, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and many other innovations. However, well over half of all new software and IT projects still fail. And many governments are falling increasingly behind the private sector as the increasing cybersecurity risks. One reason is the over pivot on technology, which alone does not achieve digital transformation. Technology alone does not address the fundamental issues that block or drive transformational success nor the most critical dependency. Because that is people. Tech veteran Margaret Dawson discusses her theory on the human factors critical to digital transformation success.

Continue the conversation with Margaret on Twitter or Linkedin, and see the slides for her presentation, here.

Please see the full transcript of the talk below.

Margaret Dawson: [00:00:00] Alright, thank you! Alright so we’re going to talk about human connections so I’m going to start with a very personal question for all of you. If you were to be honest, how many of you have to pee right now? Right? Okay. 

So I’m going to tell you a story that has nothing to do with digital transformation, but it’s how I have developed a super power of going hours without having to go to the bathroom.

It’s because I was abused as a child. Literally we would go on these family trips in a small camper that was called a Dolphin- don’t know if any of you are aware of a Dolphin? And we had five children and usually a couple of straggler friends, there might’ve been animals involved. And my father only would stop when we needed gas. That was the rule. Now fortunately, gas mileage in the seventies, late sixties, was fairly bad. So every four or five hours, we did have to stop for gas. That is a long time to go without going to the bathroom. 

So imagine five children, maybe seven [00:01:00] children in the back of the small version of a Dolphin, maybe a cat and a dog. I would of course be playing guitar. And usually it was Day by Day. And to this day, my siblings have like PTSD when they hear Day by Day. I don’t know, are you familiar with Day by Day? You know: Oh, sweet Lord, bah bah bah- and it just keeps circling over and over. So next time you have to go to the bathroom, like right now, just picture that and Day by Day on guitar and it will stop all urge of you having to go to the bathroom. And everyone that’s out there that went to the bathroom. You can now come back in. Yeah, you right there. Okay. So let’s get started. 

So, I have the privilege in my job to go all over the world and meet with customers, including many governments, and there are three things I always hear. Doesn’t matter on the geography. Doesn’t matter the industry. Doesn’t matter how big the organization is. 

We have a cloud first strategy and anyone that would like to talk about that later, I could call bullshit on that all day long. [00:02:00] So that could be a different conversation.

We have to reduce costs- like that was new. We have to do more with less. For those of you that have been in IT as long as I have we’ve been hearing that since the beginning of time, right? 

And finally I have to move faster. And these are all connected, right? We have so much technical debt. I have to reduce costs so I can move that money to innovation.

And of course, please do not make me something in the news about a security breach- these are just two recent ones just in Canada. And all of this is of course this journey that we’re on that supposedly is a new digital era. And what I’ve seen is there’s kind of three stages. So I call it emerging, transforming and leading.

And the reality is this isn’t one perfect line, right? It’s a cycle. Cause as soon as you become a leader, so to speak, or doing really well in your transformation, something new has happened and you’ve got to start over again. So it’s a cycle. [00:03:00] And you may be in multiple stages of tranformation at the same time, right? Your entire organization isn’t doing something at the same time. So you may be leading in one part and not even started in another part of your organization. 

And in some recent research that we did just a couple months ago, it asked, you know, what stage are you at using those same definitions? And what you can see is I compared all sectors around the world and we had over a thousand CIOs and IT decision makers that responded, and then I broke out the public sector because we had enough actually government and public education to pull that out. What’s interesting to me is a couple of things. Over the last 12 or 18 months since the last time we did this, more organizations have moved to full on transforming, which makes sense, right? We’re adopting new technologies. We’re in the absolute throw of transformation. Whereas before there were a lot more that were emerging. But what’s interesting to me when you look at the public sector is a couple things.

[00:04:00] One is there’s a lot more that have not yet started and that’s probably fairly understandable. Right? Government tends to be a little bit behind private sector in most new technologies. But what’s really telling is 12% say they have no plans: “Yeah, we’re good. We’re not going to change. Everything’s fine here.”

And what’s interesting is there was another question that I didn’t show here about what is your biggest blocker to digital transformation? And in governments, in some regions, the top answer was inertia: the inability to do anything. So hold on to that. 

And some of it is if we get new investment, what do we do with it? We put it in technology, almost always. And Afua this morning talked a lot about this. It can’t be just technology or just people or just process. And we’ll dig into that a little bit more. 

[00:05:00] We’re also very easily distracted. I mean typically as a vendor, we’re five or 10 years ahead of where our customers are, but I will talk about containers with you all day long, right? Cause that’s gonna save you. Just containerize everything and put it in the public cloud and we can all go home. If only! What’s interesting is that if you look at the statistics around those investments in what we’re calling disruptive technologies or emerging technologies, it is very early days. Just like we have a lot of people that are emerging or haven’t even started yet, the ROI in adopting those disruptive technologies hasn’t shown up yet.

So this research by Forbes insight shows that 75% of the executives say “We have not yet seen the benefit of these technologies.” that’s not to say they won’t, but they haven’t yet. And McKinsey Public Sector did some research specifically on transformation efforts in the public [00:06:00] sector and said that 80% of those efforts are failing. So we’re supposed to change, we’ve got to move fast, but the examples we have aren’t being successful. And if you look at just IT projects in general, not to just put a complete damper on the room, but there’s still research that shows about 45-50% of IT projects fail. Why is that? What is this telling us?

So as we’ve discussed, and yesterday there was a lot of discussion about this as well and the people element, is that we can’t just look to technology or even pure processes to drive transformation. And I love this quote about people practices are a decisive factor between success and disappointment. This was actually done, you know, by the McKinsey Public Sector in the UK. So British people don’t say [00:07:00] failure, they just say disappointment. “It’s terribly disappointing”. I love that. “We lost the war, terribly disappointed”. 

So why are we all here? Another question. Like why can’t we do this virtually? We could get on a web conference call, have a lovely chat. I can see you. Why did you all come here through the snow? I mean, you’re Canadian so snow is not a big deal, I guess, but it’s because we have to have this, right? I have to look at you in the eye because that’s how we build trust. You can’t build trust if you’re over a phone call. I mean, you can hear their voice, you can maybe see, you know, facial recognition or some things on a conference call, but there’s something about us being physically together. I may not sound right. Not in the biblical sense, but just, you know, together in the same room. Because that digital handshake that we get in computers just cannot replace [00:08:00] that handshake. 

Like, for example, how do you know if someone has one of those fish handshakes? Do you know what I’m talking about? You don’t have one, right? Okay, good. I hate that. What is that? Who teaches it? Yes. That is not trust. If someone gives you a fish handshake, do not do that business deal. Cut it off. And it’s because change requires trust. If you want your organization to go through some massive transformation, why should anyone trust you as a leader? That it’s the right thing? 

Great quote from Daniel Newman. He does a lot of research around kind of people and change and technology, but I love this: “Trust is one of the only stable principles amid this constant change”. 

So I’m going to look at this chart again. The thing that struck me is that people were last in terms of investing a lot. So this question we actually asked: how much are you investing? None, a little, a lot. And what you can’t see here that I went [00:09:00] and looked at the data was that 10% of the public sector said they weren’t investing at all in people or IT culture. 

So McKinsey has what they call the Five Key Components of Government Transformation. I thought this was quite good. And I’m going to add something that hopefully they won’t sue me for copyright cause they didn’t have this. But if you look at this in the middle, really all of these have people or human elements: communication, purpose, the capability to even change, right? We talked about inertia. Leadership, coordination. 

And while I am not McKinsey and I’m not Kotter who showed us that wonderful eight step process earlier, I have developed what I call my hypothesis of the six human factors that I think contribute to transformational success and would change that 80% number. So let’s go through them. 

[00:10:00] I actually believe vision is first. I can’t remember where it was in Kotter’s. I think it was third or fourth. Because everyone needs to believe in something. You are asking them to go through change and why should they? People want to believe in something bigger than themselves, right? It’s like, what is this vision? Like think about politicians that you really are inspired by. Why does that inspire you? Because they paint a vision. And whether we get there or not may be a question, but at least they give you some sense of a better future. So it becomes this rallying cry that everybody can believe in or start to talk about. And importantly, it says shared vision. So a vision of transformational success can not just be a dictate on a high. You know, the Prime Minister or President or CEO can not just say “Here’s our vision, go get it.” Right? It doesn’t work that way. There has to be something that makes people feel like they are part of it. And I love this, is that EY’s global [00:11:00] practice for public sector says it needs to be a wider vision about relationships. Relationships. 

Importantly, the way you make a vision work is through metrics. So a lot of times we’ll have this great vision, but then we don’t actually know when we get there. So you both need to start with the end in mind, so what’s the destination? But how do you know if you’ve actually gotten there? So what are those metrics of success where you can all look at each other honestly, and say “Okay, we’ve achieved this or we haven’t”. And what’s interesting is not only do most organizations not set a vision, nor do they have metrics of success, right? As Gartner says here, they have no way to measure whether it’s successful or not. So I go back to that other one. So 80% have failed. Have they failed because we have no clue where we are in the process? Like we’re transforming, but we don’t know where we are. 

So second, culture. And I’m gonna take a little bit different spin on the cultural thing and [00:12:00] talk about open culture. And I love this quote from the Boston Consulting Group: “It is not a digital transformation without a digital culture.” And a digital culture, I think by its very nature is open and transparent. And I like to look at open source communities for inspiration on this because what do we see in open source communities? First we see collaboration. Second, great ideas can come from anywhere. So think about that. If you’re going through a transformation and you’re using technology and processes in new ways, don’t you want to spur that innovation from anywhere in your organization, no matter what their title or their level or their geography? So that’s exactly how open source works. Shared problems, you know, are solved faster. We talked about that yesterday, right? What’s more secure: proprietary code or open source code? You got two people looking at the code, or you have thousands of people looking at the code.

 And finally [00:13:00] transparency. And this might be the most important one. And there’s been a lot of talk about open government. Maria was just talking about it in Argentina. How do we increase our transparency when we have organizations that are built around command and control? Right? How do we share information openly? Maybe you start just in your own team, right? At least be a transparent leader for the people around you so they feel they have all the information they need. 

So I’m a little bit biased because we do have an operating system, right? So Linux is kind of part of what I do every day, but I like this imagery of culture as your operating system. Cause for the techies in the room, especially those of you that run data centers, right? You can’t do anything without that operating system foundation. So we think about culture is just that absolute foundation that we have to build on. It kind of makes sense whether your stack is human or technology. I think someone yesterday called it the central nervous system, right? [00:14:00] Same idea. It runs throughout the organization.

So with that, we’ve got vision. We started to adopt an open culture. Now we’ve got to break down the silos. And this is really hard. And what I would say to all of you is you can be a broker. There is something powerful when you’re working on a project, no matter where you are in the organization, that you reach out and you bring together a group of people that normally don’t come together. And people say “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m not, you know, high enough in the organization”. That’s actually not true. I guarantee you- because I’ve seen it happen- that if you try to bring together a group of cross organizational teams to work on a project, it will happen and they will be excited about it. So think about how you can play a broker. Sometimes a vendor can do that even easier than internally, right? So if you have a vendor that’s a good partner of yours, ask them to play that broker role. I do that all the time. When I go to meet someone I’m like: “Hey, could we invite a couple of people? You know, could we invite the [00:15:00] CSO? Who to bring in a developer?” And they think I’m crazy, but it just changes the dynamic. 

And I see silos in a lot of different places. I usually don’t put countries, but I thought it’d be kind of fun cause we do have pretty major silos across countries, across provinces or States or regions. Across ministries, functions, and teams. So I’ll tell you a story that not long ago, I was actually meeting with a group of ministry CIOs- it may or may not have been in Canada. And so these were like the senior technical leaders for every ministry in this province. And as we started talking, we were there to talk about digital transformation. They had their digital transformation strategist there, and I noticed behavior in the room where as soon as one person would talk, everybody else would go “Ugh”. And I’m like: “Can I ask you guys a question? What is [00:16:00] your shared vision for your transformation?” And literally every head in the room did this. I was like so what does that, you know? And they’re like: “Well, there isn’t one”. And I said: “Why? Why don’t you have a single shared vision? Like, don’t you all report up to the same ultimate leader, the Chief CIO and ultimately the government itself?” And finally one person said: “Yeah, but we all have our different visions. And if I have a shared vision, then he might get some of the money I want.” So here are senior leaders, running technology for an entire government and their biggest fear and the reason they could not collaborate is they were competing for resources. 

And so my challenge to them was what would it take for us to get to one shared goal? [00:17:00] And maybe it’s the Chief CIO or maybe the Premier or someone like is going to put that goal out there and we’re going to do PR about it. Like, could you come up with one? And literally it was like a group of children in a sandbox: “Well, maybe one. Okay”. Right? So this happens in places you would not expect it. So think about that. If those 10 people can barely sit in a room together and don’t have any shared goals, what do you think their teams are like when it goes down? What do you think the infrastructure is like? And every one of those ministries? Do you think there’s shared services there or do you think every single infrastructure is a different stack? It’s a different stack. 

So think about transformation. Now we’re a citizen of this province that is trying to use something with that government. None of those, you know, ministries will talk to each other, which means their technologies don’t talk to each other, which means we’re not serving our people anymore. So again, stepping out of our [00:18:00] position and taking the customer in, and the only way we’re going to do that is break down silos. 

And do not forget about the developers. I cannot tell you how many transformational projects will start and there will be no developers in the room. And this is critical. This is a great book if you haven’t read it by the way. Probably many of you have. But there’s research that’s been done by the Evans Data group and they asked developers how much influence they had in technology decisions. And the word influence here is really important. They don’t write the checks, but they can completely screw up your project because here’s the thing about developers. They’re going to go where they need to go to get their work done. And if you’re not providing the services to allow them to do that, they will go somewhere else. And you’re also competing as you know, for developers with Facebook, with Google. Right? So how do you get the developer talent you need? Some of it is allowing them to innovate with the tools that they want to use.

And DevOps. How many of you do [00:19:00] DevOps? How many of you really do? Okay. That’s probably, that’s the most honest answer I’ve ever seen in a room. So DevOps is one of those love hate phrases. Because I love it when I go to someone they’re like: “Oh yeah, we’re totally doing DevOps. We’ve got the dev team over there. And sometimes they work with the ops team over there.” Right? Or it’s like: “No, no. We’re using a tool. We’ve got a tool. We’ve had dev ops tool”. So DevOps is culture. It’s all about culture and it’s not just developers and operations. It’s about the business. It’s about security. In fact, we often will say dev biz sec ops, but it gets a little ridiculous saying that all the time.

Great book:  Accelerate. These are written by the guys that did the puppet labs research on DevOps so they’ve got a lot of experience on that. And the thing I love about what they say in this book is we always think of DevOps as speed, right? We’re doing DevOps so we can release faster. We can keep moving, innovate. And what they say is speed is great, but you can’t do it at the expense of stability. [00:20:00] So all of this it’s about how do we get stability and speed at the same time. And that’s true- DevOps. 

Develop and train people. I think this is the biggest blocker to digital transformation is skillset. And we’ve seen this in research where other than not being able to put together a digital transformation strategy, all of the rest you can see are something related to training, skillset, retention, hiring, culture. And what’s interesting is that gap, that skill gap, is not just a problem for our organizations. It’s actually having a huge economic impact at both the micro and macro level. This is just one data point by Accenture that the digital skills gap in the UK could cost $141 billion in GDP growth. So just think what that would look like if we had a global number. And open source, of course, going back to that developer comment is a great way to attract [00:21:00] talent because it’s using the latest technologies. It allows them to contribute and all those things that we’ve talked about. 

And we talked about this a little bit this morning, and a few other things about diversity. And the thing I will say here is there’s great research that talks about why this is not just the right thing to do, especially for governments- like you should obviously embrace diversity and inclusion and look like your population- it actually has business sense and benefit, right? And this research shows that 87% of the time, diverse-inclusive teams make better decisions- and they do it two times faster with less meetings. And when I first saw that it was not intuitive to me and I’m like: “Well, wouldn’t they just be arguing all the time?” But then I thought about it. How many of you have taken like a Myers Brigg or whatever, you know, any kind of personality- don’t you have to do that in government? Okay. So I’m usually like an impact or I’m red or whatever that aggressive thing is that I’m just not supposed to like people [00:22:00] or something. So I thought okay, like put a table of eight of me together, I think we’d make decisions really fast. Don’t you? No, we’d kill each other. Right? 

Or my favorite one is, and not to be stereotypical, but you see this a lot in government is what’s called the connector or usually your green. Like you want to make everybody feel okay. So picture eight of those around the table. “Are you okay? Does everybody agree? Oh, maybe we should start over. Do you need coffee? Is everybody feeling warm about this dislike?” So it makes sense, right? 

And finally make it personal. This is important. It means you have to get out there. We used to call it walking the halls before distributed organizations, but this means you’ve got to go meet with your people. You’ve got to go meet with your employees, meet with your customers, meet with your constituents, right? You’ve got to physically get out there and meet with people. And it’s also about the user and user experience, right? So making that much more [00:23:00] intuitive, much more engaging, and that’s how we make our technology personal.

And I’m not going to go through these but great examples of some governments that are actually doing a really good job in using open source to build communities and bring together public sector, developers and private sector. Anybody from BC here? Well done. BCDevExchange- friggin cool. Go check it out.

So finally, it’s not just the what, it’s the how. It’s how we do things as humans. Great book: Designing Reality. My second book recommendation today. They have a term called double bottom line. Companies usually, but I’m going to make it governments here. Double bottom lines means you are committed to financial performance and social good. Not one or the other. It’s just like that [00:24:00] DevOps book, right? Not just speed. Not just stability. Not just financial performance. Not just profitability. Not just your P & L. But social good. And imagine if we put as much investment in social innovation as we do in technical innovation. 

And I’ll talk about this later, because I know I’m out of time, but Singapore may or may not be the best example of transparency all the time, but they actually have done a lot with the community to build applications. And this is an app where you can be a registered certified first responder and when someone has a heart attack, someone seeing this can hit this app and the closest responder can come and grab a defibrillator that’s somewhere in the nearby area and they’ve saved lives because the paramedics couldn’t get to people fast enough because it’s a very crowded city state. And so far they’ve literally saved dozens of lives. And this all happened because of hackfests that they were having with community developers. 

[00:25:00] And finally, why? So, how and why. And here’s just an example of our why, which we spend a lot of time working on, which we feel is our purpose. But more importantly is your why. So as you go through the rest of this conference, the rest of the week, I leave you with this question: what is your personal, why? And what is your organizational why? Maybe what is your political why? And how can you use that to make a difference? 

Thank you very much.