This week I’ve wrapped up another engagement working for the Common Technology Services programme in the Government Digital Service. With two stints working in the pan-Government group now under my belt, I’m left wondering a few things about how technology is managed not only within the public sector, but in big organisations more generally.

To put it bluntly – if you are having problems with technology in your organisation, I can guarantee you: it’s a people issue.

That’s a bit unfair. It’s a people and skills issue. It might be possible to fill in the skills, but only if some of your other people recognise that it’s not a technology issue. The silver bullet of the newest, latest, greatest technology is so very alluring, but you need to remind yourself that you are almost certainly not in the business of assassinating vampires.

What makes me so sure of this? Well, the evidence is overwhelming: as the IEEE put it

If you dig deep enough, at the root of any problem are human decisions: sloppy code, insufficient testing, poorly understood dependencies, and incorrect assumptions. Yet when we read about (and report on) failures, the language we use tends to assign blame to inanimate technology that can’t defend itself or get fired.

And so ultimately if people are to blame, then people are the thing that needs to change (whether the individuals, or their skills and outlook).

And herein lies the problem. IT (and the people within it) are at an inflection point in the industry where everything is changing (delivery models shifting to cloud, the rise of social and commercial internet, the death of the PC and so on). But these changes aren’t just about changes in technology – they are about fundamental changes to underlying business models. IT becomes a generator of revenue and competitive differentiation for more than just software companies. Managing IT is no longer just about reducing cost.

But a shift to a new world, with new technological and business models, requires curious and humble individuals willing to accept that they don’t know the answers as they help to shape them. That’s not necessarily the cadre of CIOs, or lead architects, or service delivery managers coming through the ranks in the next few years. In fact the lag to get the right skills might well require people from outside of the world of tech coming in to add diversity of thinking.

But to do what? He’s the real rub: there is no model for how you run IT today. Some CIOs get broadsided by the customer-facing stuff and lose focus on the traditional stuff. Some ignore the new world hoping the pension will kick in before they are kicked out. Either way, there are few knowns on how technology people should be organised and the skills that they will require. Other than “adaptability” which probably sits at the top of the list.

The worst thing that can be done in this world is to assume that it’s merely a matter of releasing the next funky device or cool app. Technology within an organisation occurs in a complex web of people, their experiences and their skills. Changing systems alone in an organisation where the technology is dysfunction is firmly in the category of “polishing the lipstick on the pig”.

 

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