Digital = Automation (or how to keep your looms clog-free)

Pretty much every meeting I attend these days involves some discussion of ‘Digital by Default’ or ‘Channel Shift’.do-it-online

Often these meetings see me waxing lyrical about digital things and trying not to roll my eyes when someone says “But what about the people who are not online?” (someone ALWAYS says this – I’ve blogged on it here).

Recently, in one of these meetings, I had something of an epiphany. I was being challenged by a non-believer over digital’s business case when I realised that what I was failing to get across is simply this – doing things digitally means that a computer carries out tasks that would previously been done by a human. D’oh!

Digital = Automation

Pretty obvious huh? But once I’d stopped using the phrases digital by default and channel shift and started using ‘automation’ instead I found it much easier to get the message across. We automate processes to make them cheaper, faster and better.


Spot-welding robots on a car production line can get through many, many more cars per day than a human workforce – and they don’t need to sleep, it’s a 24/7 service.

Similarly, by automating a process and putting it online we make our services faster, better and cheaper (and 24/7). Why are online services cheaper? Largely because humans are expensive things to employ and online services don’t need as many humans.

As this graphic shows, an online transaction is MUCH cheaper for the council than a face-to-face equivalent (I believe that these figures are from some SOCITM research). channelshift

As well as helping me explain why digital is better, these thoughts of automation led to a further insight – the reason we’re finding it so hard to ‘do’ digital is that it is being resisted by our own employees. Let’s travel back in time 400 years or so to help me explain….

A ‘sabot’ was a type of wooden clog worn by poor people in 16th century Europe (bear with me, this does have something to do with digital).wooden-shoes

When automatic knitting machines and looms were invented the peasants feared for their jobs. The new looms could make better quality clothes and they could do it much faster than the old hand-looms.

In an effort to protect their jobs the disgruntled weavers threw their sabots in to the inner workings of the loom in order to smash the machinery. From this action we get the word ‘sabotage’. 

This is a lesson from history that we could do well to pay attention to today. Everyone apart from the saboteurs thought that the new weaving machines were a great innovation. The manufacturers could make more clothes and blankets, the consumers got better clothes at much reduced cost. The loom makers were prized for the technical prowess. Everyone was happy apart from the people who used to do things the old way.

turkeyNow, as then, the people who are most likely to block an innovation are the people whose livelihoods are threatened by it. Turkeys are unlikely to vote for Christmas.

It’s hard for a large public sector organisation to ‘do’ digital. But why should this be? Our customers want it – they prefer to do things online. The leaders of the organisation want digital – it saves them money and allows for headcount reduction through automation.

The only people who don’t view digital as self-evidently the right thing to do are the humans who will be displaced by the automation of these transactions.

There is a way to approach this problem that keeps everyone happy. It’s essential that we don’t attempt to hard-wire a link between digital/channel shift and financial savings. This seems counter-intuitive, I know, but if you start your digital transformation by saying “We’re going to channel shift and this will mean we can drop headcount by 10 people by the end of the year” you’re going to find that your looms fill up with clogs and the project is suddenly very much harder than you thought it was going to be. You can’t really ‘do’ digital to processes unless you take the process owners with you – hearts and minds.

Instead, the message should be “We’re going to do digital/channel shift because it will ease your paperworkloads and help you cope with recent headcount reductions – we know you’re buckling under the strain and this project will help with that. What’s more – our customers will get a better service.”

You back this up by not taking any departmental/service budgets to fund the digital projects. Instead you fund this transformation at the centre knowing that there is a self-evident invest-to-save business case. For a small investment you’ll reap big savings.

In a year’s time, when the project is up and running, the people on the ground can see that they now have much less work to do and you find that you can now accept all those voluntary severance applications that you had to turn down last year. Headcount shrinks – incrementally and without too much trauma.

In summary – don’t get hung up on trying to predict the savings you’ll make from digital. It’s impossible for you to accurately put a figure on what you’ll save and to try to do so will result in resistance from the process owners. Instead, be resolute in the belief that automation is self-evidently the right thing to do and know that, to paraphrase Field of Dreams..

If you build it, the savings will come.




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