Tag Archives: digital

There Are Only 10 Types of People

I made an off-the-cuff remark about the tendency of people to use this image to illustrate articles about ‘digital’. It appears to depict some binary instructions traversing the walls of some kind of weird quantum tunnel. Or perhaps the tunnel is supposed to represent an Internet connection, who knows?

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The Binary Tunnel

In the same publication, on the same day, we find a similar image used to illustrate a different story – this time we seem to be looking at a funky binary cube.

binarycube

In response to my plea to photo editors to step away from these abstractions of ‘digital’ Jeni Tennison asked the (not unreasonable) question “What are people supposed to use instead?!?

Jeni

I started to reply to Jeni but only got as far as “Well, they could always use…”

What could they use? What image conveys ‘digital’? My problem with the binary cube/tunnel is that binary code is literally (and I mean that ‘literally’ literally) as far from the end user experience as it’s possible to get. Binary is the bottom layer of computing – the language of the machines. Very few people in the world have ever or could ever code in binary. It’s an old joke:

“There are only 10 types of people – those who understand binary and those who don’t”

OK Mr smarty pants, what image could we use to put at the top of all those articles about ‘digital’? Well, I’m as guilty as the rest – this is a logo for the Sheffield City Region CIO Forum that I designed a while back. Spot the binary?
SCR CIO

To my shame, the ones and zeroes mean something – 010000110100100101001111 codes for the text string ‘CIO’. Sorry.

The image below is my take at representing ‘digital’. It’s not very good (I’m no designer) but it does try to depict digital in use in a way that most humans would recognise. Photo editors everywhere – I give it to you, copyright free. You are welcome.

DigitalImage

 

 

 

 

 

I Hold These Truths to be Self Evident – A Constitution for the Digital Engine Room

I’m yet to be convinced about the merits of creating a Digital Strategy or even an ICT Strategy (more on this here).

What you absolutely must have, however, is a set of principles which govern the way you do things or, as I prefer to think of it, a ‘constitution’. If you give your self a set of golden rules to dictate the way constitutionpicin which you respond to any request then the actual project list becomes significantly less important.

Your constitution – your philosophy is your strategy.

The list below is my constitution – I hold these truths to be self-evident.

  • Secure by default: information security will be designed in to all our systems, changes and processes right from start and throughout;
  • Information, not Infrastructure: Local Authorities should not be in the IT business – hardware and software is ancillary to any Council’s core activity (serving the public). Whilst the information we create and use is of ever growing strategic importance we can be less concerned about the infrastructure. We will continue to minimise our local infrastructure through a strong preference that systems will be vendor/cloud hosted wherever possible. We will review every significant application, starting with the largest and attempt to have them vendor hosted regardless of their current contractual state. Our aim is to quickly and safely reduce the equipment in our data centre and associated support activity to the absolute minimum;
  • Open Standards and open data: the use of published, open, standards for data exchange will continue to be pursued, the use of open standards will ensure that the likelihood of supplier lock in is reduced and allow the transfer of services or suppliers without significant cost or loss of data. We will publish as much of our data as possible openly, online, for reuse by citizens, the private sector and other public sector organisations;
  • Share and reuse: most Local Authorities do the same things in the same ways – this includes IT. This approach has resulted in an enormous duplication of effort and investment across the sector. We will always seek to join up with others and share services and our aspiration is to move away from each Council having its own IT department. We will learn from others and reuse software, processes and ideas;
  • Browser delivered and browser agnostic: the web browser is already the de facto standard application delivery interface. Traditional software which runs via separate client installations will soon be a thing of the past. Wherever possible we will buy/build applications that run in a web browser and are agnostic to the type of browser and device in use;
  • Any device, anywhere, any time: the traditional model of only being able to access Council applications from Council owned devices connected to the Council network is long gone. We will configure our network such that we can allow access from any device to authorised content whilst maintaining strong security;
  • Buy, don’t build: our default approach is to buy ‘off the shelf’ software (rented where possible) rather than designed in-house. We will only develop bespoke ‘in house’ software as a last resort. This removes support overheads and makes it easier to move software to the cloud. We no longer have the resources to commit to developing lots of software and, more significantly, we absolutely do not have the resources to continue to support and development the software we create;
  • Best of breed, not ERP: Local Authorities are some of the most complex and diverse organisations in the world. The wide range of services we deliver means that ‘one size fits all’ is never appropriate in the IT sense. We will take software procurement on a case by case basis always preferring best of breed point solutions over unwieldy enterprise-wide platforms that stifle agility and hamper cloud adoption;
  • Integration and APIs: regardless of where the systems we use are hosted we will always work to ensure that the systems can ‘talk to each other’ and are integrated. This will allow us to move away from the traditional silo approach and give us a holistic view of the data we hold. Where systems are provided by a third party we will insist that APIs (application programming interfaces) are available and provided.
  • Desktop and server virtualisation: physical infrastructure will be minimised through the use of server and desktop virtualisation. This allows us to extend the life of hardware and reduce the investment required in servers and laptops. In those instances when it is not possible to have a supplier host a system we will host the software in our own data centre. If possible we will use virtual servers to do so. Virtual servers are cheaper, greener, more efficient, more resilient and easier to support than traditional physical servers. We have already virtualised around 60% of our server fleet and we will review all our servers with a view to virtualising as many as possible. This will make provisioning easier and will also lead to a big energy efficiency gain as we decommission older servers which tend not to be very green;
  • Rent, don’t own: where possible we will lease licences and hardware rather than buying assets outright. This allows is to respond more quickly to changing demands and removes the inertia that comes with sunk investment in assets. A move towards a more ‘rental’ model for the majority of our software will make cloud adoption easier, allow the uptake and standardisation of new software versions to reduce support costs and improve user satisfaction;
  • Vanilla by default: Unlike the historic position, where software which is customisable to fit with business processes the working assumption will be that it is largely used out of the box as a standard or ‘vanilla’ version. Large scale or complex customisations to exactly meet business requirements will be avoided wherever possible; rather the expectation will be that business processes will be modified to meet the procured software’s approach to a process. This will significantly reduce the whole life cost of the software and enable the timely upgrade to new versions;
  • Show, don’t tell – prototypes not slideware: sometimes we will have to build things in house because this is the only option. In these cases, new ideas and proposed changes are best communicated by demonstrating how they will work. We will eschew bullet points in presentations in favour of quick and simple wire frames, prototypes and proofs of concept.
  • Minimum viable product: regardless of whether we are buying a product or building something ourselves we will adhere to the ‘minimum viable product’ principle (MVP). Rather than buying/building huge, complex unwieldy applications we will start small and move quickly. A MVP is the most pared down version of a product that can still be used and be useful.
  • ICT Professionalism and organisational resilience: as the Council and customers increasingly rely on ICT and expect more from ICT the skills of the Corporate ICT department need to be managed carefully to ensure they are fit for purpose. Membership of recognised professional bodies, such as British Computer Society or SOCTIM by Corporate ICT staff will be encouraged. Further, we will reduce the risk of downtime and data loss by ensuring that the ICT organisation has sufficient resilience through strength in depth.
  • Technology confidence in the wider workforce: we will create a skilled, technology-confident workforce through investing in learning, development and training opportunities for our own staff. We will, through training, enable staff to get the most benefit from our investment in technology;
  • Open source software: procurement of open source software will always be considered; Open source products are rarely ‘free’ as there are usually support and productivity costs but it will always be considered.
  • ICT Self-service: we will deploy self-service web tools to allow our customers to raise incidents and request changes and to give them the ability to log on to check the status of their requests. We will design these tools such that our customers will prefer this channel over telephone contact. At the same time we will reduce the number of hours during which we are contactable via phone.
  • Business case driven: there will be a business case associated with everything we do. Usually this will be a financial business case (i.e. we will ‘invest to save’) but there are other types of case for change and some things are self-evidently the right thing to do.

What do you think?

Not just a digital strategy – it’s a business strategy for a digital age…

By fixating on the need for a digital strategy document we can often forget that the real goal is a set of digitally enabled business strategies or service plans.

You don’t just need a digital strategy – you need all of your service areas to write service plans and strategies that exploit digital.

Digital shouldn’t be handed down from the top of the organisation – it should bubble up naturally from the people who are tasked with delivering services. The business areas should be irrepressibly enthusiastic about using technology – they shouldn’t need coercing.capture

This is why our new strategy was co-produced with the various business units in the Council, with the aim of pulling together all aspects of the organisation’s digital work under one roof.

And here it is – our Digital Council Strategy 2016 to 2019:

Click here to see RMBC’s new Digital Council Strategy

 

 

 

 

Darwinian Forces are at Work in the Public Sector

Local Government has spent 5 years cutting back. We haven’t just cut to the bone, we’re now darwinscraping the bone. This activity has taken massive amounts of cost out of Local Government and we have achieved savings on a scale that the 2010 versions of ourselves would have derided for being so large as to be the stuff fantasy.

Despite this we find ourselves with a set of 2015 Local Authorities which are not so different from their 2010 counterparts. Certainly our organisations are very much smaller in terms of headcount – but we persist in doing the same things in the time honoured fashions.

It’s time for us to call an end to the half-decade of inward focus – of salami slicing and thinning out – that work is at an end. We must now look outwards as we enter the second half of Local Government’s Decade Horribilis with our eyes on the real prize – changing the way we work by blurring, or entirely removing, the boundaries between many of the public sector organisations.

Like it or not ‘The State’ is in rapid retreat and the shrinkage won’t be reversed anytime soon. There are Darwinian forces at work here and only through the clever use of data and technology will the smart organisations have the requisite tools to evolve their way back from the brink.

It’s all about information – how we create it, how we store it, how we protect it, how we share it and how we exploit it. Clever exploitation of information and technology will help Local Government and the wider public sector to, not just survive, but thrive.

Embrace Shadow Tech or Die

Shadow Tech‘ – we IT folk do enjoy our cool-sounding names don’t we?ShadowTech

The term Shadow Tech refers to the use of consumer technology by the workforce, usually in a way that is not sanctioned by ‘Corporate IT’.

Generally speaking the IT department does not like the  business to use any technology that they (IT) haven’t selected, procured and learned how to support. The instinct of your average IT team is to declare shadow tech verboten, often citing ‘security’ as the reason.

Today’s shadow tech manifests itself in the form of iOS and Android devices. Our employees have them at home, love them and can see how they will help at work – but the IT team says “No, it’s not safe“.

‘ICT as Denier’ is a dangerous role to adopt. I’ve already written about the battle with pernicious ‘security’ but when it comes to shadow tech the real threat is to the IT department – the threat of irrelevance.

We can illustrate the risk by casting our minds back to Shadow Tech 1.0. Less than 30 years ago the IT Dept. was about number crunching and centralised computing – the mainframe was still king. Then in the late 80s and early 90s the Personal Computer (PC) started appearing in people’s living rooms. “Wow!” the people thought “These PCs are great, I can see how this would really help me with my work.”   

The IT Department said “No – that’s not how we do it – if you want some computing doing come to us and we’ll sort it out for you”. So the business promptly ignored IT and went out and bought PCs.

Shadow Tech

PCs proliferated on desktops throughout the organisation and a person in each area would often adopt the mantle of ‘the guy who knows about computers’. Within a few years we had mini-IT Departments all over the place, less control at the centre and an uncoordinated ad hoc approach to technology exploitation.

Wind forwards 20 years and many organisations have now managed to wrest control of ICT back to the centre. The PC (laptop) is ubiquitous but that’s OK because it is now approved and controlled by the IT team. Meanwhile, in the data centre, the mainframes have gone and Windows servers hum away contentedly – all is well with the world.

But hark! Here comes Shadow Tech 2.0 the iPhone and iPad started appearing in people’s living rooms. “Wow!” the people thought “These mobile gadgets are great, I can see how this would really help me with my work.”   

The IT Department said “No – that’s not how we do it – they are not safe. If you want some computing doing come to us and we’ll give you a proper computer”. So the business promptly ignored IT and went out and bought iPads.

Shadow Tech

We know what happens next because we’ve been here before.

(There’s something here that needs exploring around the importance of ‘Institutional Memory‘ in helping us avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – but that’s a post for another day)

Again Corporate ICT loses control – but this time the stakes are far higher. Both the volumes of data and the sensitivity of the data in use are hugely increased compared with 25 years ago. If the end users succeed in bypassing the IT Department then there’s a real risk of a security breach (and near certain compliance problems) – and the users will find a way to use these devices at work because people are clever.

The CIO’s role in this is to act as a trusted advisor to the business. IT should be a door-opener not a gate-keeper. The IT team need to get ahead of the curve and work out how to use these amazing new devices safely. Buy lots of different models and trial different management software then go back to your business users and say “Hey, look – we’ve worked out a way that you can use these things at work.”

But it doesn’t stop there – Shadow Tech 3.0 is already upon us and its name is Software as a nephoService (SaaS). I am a huge advocate of cloud computing and SaaS and I’ve written about this before. SaaS is so good (easy to use, cheap and easy to deploy) that your users will already by eyeing it/using it. Most SaaS tools require little more than a browser – your users are able to purchase their subscription and be up and running on the new application without IT ever knowing about it. This represents a serious threat to the organisation’s data as it is unlikely that the user will have checked that (e.g.) the data is being stored in the EEC.

The CIO’s job here is not to issue a diktat “Staff must not sign up to cloud based software tools.” rather we need to educate staff as to the risk and request that they run all such proposals past the ICT Governance Team so that they can do the due diligence/legwork around security. Sometimes there will be a genuine reason why a SaaS application should be blocked in the corporate world (e.g. DropBox *shudders*) – but usually this stuff is safe to use.

This is ICT adding value to the organisation and it’s a pointer towards ICT’s new role (the inexorable movement from the management of tin and wires to the management of data and risk).

So, be a door-opener not a gate-keeper because, guess what, Shadow Tech 4.0 will be along any day now…

Door-opener not gate-keeper

Door-opener not gate-keeper

 

Let the Information Flow

lifebloodInformation is the lifeblood of any organisation and, as is the case with actual blood, the consequences of the flow being blocked are just as serious as the consequences of some leaking out.

Clearly it’s essential that public sector organisations protect the data that they hold – that’s a given. None of us want to fall foul of the ICO and, much more importantly, we have a duty of care around our citizen’s data. Getting one’s data security house in order is key concern of any CIO.

But we have another duty – a duty to share information. Public sector organisations must share data internally and externally. Information is what we do – it’s our currency, our raw material, our tool and our product.

Back in 1999 Bill Gates wrote a book called ‘Business at the Speed of Thought‘ in which businesshe set out his vision of how technology could transform an organisation. The point that Gates made repeatedly is that the speed that we do business is largely dictated by the speed at which we exchange data.

We do business at the speed of information exchange – if the information flow is blocked then we are in big trouble.

We should view any change to the organisation which impedes information flow with suspicion. This includes changes which are made in the name of ‘security’.

One of my favorite quotes is:

“A ship is safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are for” 

(there is some debate about the origin of this quote but it seems likely that it was first used by John A. Shedd in 1928. I use this quote too often at work and at home – but it’s applicable to so many situations)

“Information is safe on a server, but that’s not what information is for” 

If you want your data to be completely secure you should put it on a server, locked in a data centre and pull out the network lead. But that’s not what data is for.

Over-zealous security measures will impede the flow of information and your organtisation will be less effective. Most of the controls in the PSN code of connection, for example, are very sensible – but a few are draconian/ill-conceived and they have been implemented to the detriment of organisational effectiveness.

A big part of the role of the modern CIO is to be organisational warfarin – an antidote to the coagulating effects of pernicious ‘security’. If a security measure seems over the top to you then you need to push back.

Information is the lifeblood of the organisation – let it flow freely.

Your Call is (Probably) Not Important to Me – In Praise of Email

We all have a strained relationship with our email inbox.

For many people Outlook is work (other email clients are available :-)).outlook

That little orange icon on our desktop can contain a world of pain and email has been getting a bad press recently. Some commentators have bemoaned the fact that people often think that they are ‘doing’ work when they are ‘doing’ email.

Strength of feeling is such that there’s even been a suggestion that email should be turned off outside of working hours.

You’ll hear no such complaints from me – I like email. The beauty of email is that it is an asynchronous communication mechanism. An email lands, you glance at it, triage it and if it’s urgent you act upon it. More often than not you delete it or leave it alone until it needs attention.

Compare this to that most cursed of devices – the telephone. “Answer me now!” it screams.

Bye bye to an old enemy.

Bye bye to an old enemy.

How often have you seen colleagues chatting around a desk – discussing a work issue – when the desk phone rings and the owner of the phone interrupts the conversation to answer it? What this person is actually saying is “I don’t know who is calling or what they want but this unknown person is more important to me than you are.” How rude!

Even worse than the phone is the Johnny-come-lately of synchronous attention seekers – INSTANT MESSAGING (IM). IM is basically email that you have to reply to immediately. It allows people to tip-tap-tap on your computer screen “Pay me attention, talk to me, stop what you are doing and talk to ME ME ME!” No matter how trivial the message – you have to drop everything and get involved in a text exchange.

My time is precious and I have to focus on the important stuff. Email allows me to do this, the telephone (and IM) don’t.

So I’ve long since abandoned the use of landlines. As, I’ve written before I have now diverted my work landline to a message asking the caller to email me. There are, of course, people who I need to be very responsive to, so my boss (etc) is now in the habit of calling my personal mobile. More often than not people will now email me with a quick “Rich, plz call me” – because they know this is the quickest way to get hold of me.

You've got mail.

You’ve got mail.

I like email – it allows me to control my day. I recommend you try giving up on your desk phone – it’s liberating.