What I learned about digital transformation from speaking to founding members of the GDS

This post was originally written and published for Catalyst in May 2021. I’ve added few additional thoughts (and links to workshops) to this version.

Lessons learned about digital transformation

A few months ago I was looking to curate some advice for a client. Their organisation was in the early phases of digital transformation – by which I mean the to move to using technology in a more strategic way for the entire organisation. The organisation was large, extremely complex, and in some ways quite unwieldy. I am an advocate for learning from others where you can, and so I reached out on Twitter in the hope of arranging a virtual coffee with some of the people who were at the Government Digital Service (GDS) at the very start. It was both the scale of the organisation that the GDS looked to support with digital services, and the incredible impact that its creation has had on the way that public focussed organisations work today that drove me to reach out and learn from those that were there.

Initially, these virtual coffees were arranged to inform the advice I would give to my client. The wealth of information shared couldn’t be kept to myself, I had to share them. For some, it may seem close to impossible to start to think about digital transformation. Your team may be small, it may even just be you. My hope with this blog is to give you a selection of tools and techniques that you can try in your own organisation. They don’t have to be used all at once, you can take it slowly.

While no organisation has got digital transformation 100% right (please, if you know of one do share that with me, I will happily stand corrected), GDS has been one of the pinnacle examples for many years. The learnings from its creation are being shared through the support of organisations like BeMoreDigital, CAST and Catalyst, as well as in teams across the country.

What is a digital service and how does it differ to what you might have now? 

It is important to note that GDS first had to agree what ‘digital service’ was – and could be – in government. For this team, the ‘digital service’ they planned to create would enable and empower government professionals to use digital tools to deliver their services. They aimed to get to a point where the wider organisation could use digital as a means to do their work, instead of relying on limited resources. For this to work, minimum standards and frameworks* were developed for everyone to follow. In your organisation, this might be a standard to check that all web content is to an agreed reading age (you could use Hemingway Editor to check). This blog post will explore the tools and techniques used by the founding GDS team to build their standards and frameworks, and most importantly what worked when they moved to embed these across their large and complex organisation. 

*We’re running pay what you can workshops in January, April, July, September and December 2022) to help you plan and consider what else should be included in the standards and framework for your organisation. Strategies to excite leadership / encourage the problems to be solved. 

Evidence, evidence, evidence… 

Value / Return

Show the value / return on investing in strategic digital activity – this doesn’t have to be financial! The value / return of the work done could be:

  • emotional – reducing the workload of a team member
  • practical – making information more easy to find on your website
  • or financial

It’s easy to see that financial savings have been made, but how do you evidence value / return when it’s emotional and or practical?

Draft problem statements

To do this, I often turn to a problem statement; here’s a template that I use: 

As a [insert a description of the type of person that has the problem]

[insert information about the problem]

When [insert information about when the problem exists]

We will have solved this problem when [insert what an improved experience for the person might be – try to make it something you can measure]

And an example of it in use: 

As a charity administrator

I find much of my time is spent moving information from a paper form to a spreadsheet

When I’m reviewing the applications to our charity summer camp

We will have solved this problem when the charity administrator no longer has to type up the paper forms into the database and the errors in applications are lower. 

This is just one example of how you could track, measure and evidence the progress that your organisation is making; there are many, many, more (but that’s probably another article!). 

Journey mapping

If you’ve heard of a journey map, you’ve probably been reading about user experience (UX) design, and research. It can really help to highlight gaps in your organisation’s set up, or simple services that people are trying to access. 

An external facing example: 

A visually impaired person is trying to access the support that your charity provides….

They (or a supportive person) go to your website to find out more. Now they have learnt about your support they see an activity that they want to book on to. The only way for them to book is to email.

By journey mapping this experience, you can see the gaps in this service – and how it might be improved. The idea is the same for an internal facing audience.

If you are a visual person it might be helpful to story board it (illustrated below).

A storyboard of the user journey for a visually impaired person looking to access a charity’s support service. The journey is described in the above text

For example: What if, the person looking to access the charity’s services was told by their friend that the charity’s website could ‘speak to them’ and read aloud what was on the screen? Or if the support event was just two clicks to book? 

Remember, this activity can (and should) be used for internal journeys. Think about the way that teams request holidays or learning activities, even how they get their expense claims paid.

Be aware of ‘post it note fatigue’

Change can be tiring. Think of all the change that you, and your organisation, have gone through since March 2020 to ‘just keep going’ in the face of lockdowns and other challenges. You feel pretty tired of change now, right?

In organisations where ‘change has been coming for some time’ many members of the team will have fatigue. Being aware of this fatigue will help you to continue to make positive change in your organisation. It helps you approach the challenges that this brings with humanity and empathy. 

In 2022 I will be running sessions to explore and plan to safeguard staff from burnout with the awesome Jo Sharpen (Workshops running January, March, May, September, and November 2022) !

Ask for help

As well as empathy, it’s helpful to share with others, and ask for help, as in the case of my conversations with GDS. CAST and Catalyst have been doing some inspiring work with charities across the UK throughout 2020 and into this year (explore this work at their Festival of Learning) to highlight the benefits of re-use, developing Service Recipes, and supporting charities to use open source technologies, and no or low code systems to test and develop ideas.  

Be the change that you want to see

If you want to see change, you must first prove the value of it. The best way that I have found to do that is to be the change yourself.

Work in the open

Working in the open helps to remove the fear of creating without others knowing. Weeknotes, ‘Show and Tell’ events, public project plans, and other open ways of working can help tell the story and act as a helpful tool of reference if / when your project receives push back from people who ‘didn’t know about it’. Working in the open can help to inspire others to try and experiment on their digital journey as well as reduce duplication of efforts. 

Be user-led

This does not just extend to the way you develop the services and content for the external audience; in order to lead by example you must adopt user-led activities in the internal facing work you do. It is widely accepted across the sector that designing with users leads to services that are more helpful and valuable. I advocate for taking the same principles and facing them inwards. This ensures that changes made are widely adopted and makes the whole process more enjoyable for all.

Train and empower others in the organisation to follow your lead

You can’t achieve change alone; you will need to empower others to come with you on the journey. Build in learning opportunities for projects for everyone involved, and coach them (where you can) through managing complexities. Below are a few examples of what might work for your organisation:

  • Lunch and learn (other times of the working day are also encouraged)
  • Show and Tell sessions or even a show and tell board
  • Online learning pathways, courses, and learning communities
  • Documentation and user guides

These are the highlights from my conversations, and experience. They are by no means exhaustive. I hope they inspire you and give you confidence in the work you are already doing to help move your organisation’s digital journey keep moving.

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