We can all shape the world now…

flickr-davos

Another year, another Davos conference where the global super-elite gather to meet to discuss the worlds’ problems. Or at least do some great networking…  Because how much innovation truly originates from those at the top?

In the UK, a controversially-titled TV show is dominating local headlines – Benefits Street – examining the lives of residents living on one street in Birmingham, the majority of which are dependent on benefits.

Paul Taylor has an excellent article – 3 lessons we should all learn from Benefits Street – highlighting the more positive aspects of the programme. Like Paul, I watched an episode out of curiosity given the news coverage and agree with his perspective. The show shines a spotlight on just how difficult it is to get out of the trap once you fall into it. And Paul highlights the flaw in much of our government systems focused on welfare (emphasis his):

One of the problems across the social sector is there’s too much top down innovation and an over reliance on tech based solutions.

We need to listen to communities , seed fund some grass roots projects and get out of the way.

Time and again, systems that grow bottom-up out perform those that are designed top-down. Top-down priorities are beneficial when you are looking to scale out a successful solution. But finding a solution in the first place is demonstrably easier when starting small: experiment, fail fast, learn and try again. You can’t do that when investing billions on a single enterprise-scale scheme.

Davos may be a great deal of fun and intellectual exercise for the global super-elite. But the mindset invariably focuses on top-down solutions. Attendance is mostly limited to those benefitting from the current systems in the world. Cue Machiavelli:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

To shape the world in a different way is more likely to happen by the actions of those least likely to attend events like Davos. And in this new globally connected age, the balance of power is shifting. Whilst there have always been people across the generations who would rather see a fairer world, the Internet has connected those voices on a far bigger scale in recent years. More and more individuals talk about their desire for meaning and purpose over wealth. For a more collaborative networked culture over one dominated by command-and-control hierarchies.

The following is just one presentation (but a rather good one by Joyce Hostyn) demonstrating this shift:

The theme at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year was ‘Shaping the world’. That’s something we can all now participate in. The smartest people will never all be in one room.

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Flickr image – Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Michael S. Dell at WEF 2009, Davos – shared by the World Economic Forum

Aligning investment with reality

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An interesting article appeared at the end of last week, highlighting a shift in thinking towards IT projects within the UK government:

Gov.uk was launched quickly and iteratively, with a new simplicity that has resulted in a website containing fewer than 10% of previous separately hosted pages and is set to save as much as £70m on previous arrangements.

A new online system for people to apply for Power of Attorney on behalf of others had taken 10 working days to procure, 24 days to build and code a prototype alpha system for live testing and a beta was due to go live in two months, he said. The whole project had been commissioned from a small business using the G-Cloud for around £50,000 a year, compared with a quote obtained from one large existing provider of £4m set up plus £1.8m per year

There are two reasons why the costs to deliver an IT project should drop significantly to the established normal. 1. At the tail-end of a previous disruptive innovation, 2. At the beginning of a new one.

hype-curve

The hype curve of innovation applies to just about any industry. A new concept is invented. It starts small and is highly specialised but creates demonstrable value to customers. Such success never goes unnoticed and demand begins to grow. That brings competition and rival proprietary solutions. To begin with, more value is created, usually at an increasing pace as different companies come up with more innovative features to compete with one another. But then a tipping point is reached and, for a short while, everything gets a bit chaotic and messy. Hidden costs emerge, problems arise, competitors get acquired and solutions are suddenly discontinued or dramatically altered. Out of the disruption comes a new demand – standardisation that allows for continuity and economies of scale. And so the market settles down into slow growth, cheaper solutions and small incremental improvements. Until a new disruption comes along.

Building traditional web sites for publishing content are at the end of 15-year innovation cycle. The standards for design and formatting of web content have become so well established that even Microsoft has just about embraced them within the latest versions of the Internet Explorer web browser. Most popular public-facing web sites now follow familiar conventions regarding navigation and page layouts. To consolidate multiple different government departmental web sites under a single umbrella gov.uk web site makes absolute sense and should save a lot of money.

Using agile approaches to software development has grown in popularity in recent years. The goal being to do ‘just enough’ design to build a working solution, and quickly tweak and iterate based on actual usage patterns rather than predicted requirements. It requires far less ‘up-front’ investment due to much shorter planning cycles and usually results in far better user adoption rates. But it doesn’t guarantee a cheaper solution over time. That will depend on the iterations and ongoing development.

Applying an agile approach to business systems is at the early stages of the innovation hype cycle. Some solutions are simply brilliant, but growth in competition means some are not. The disruption and hidden costs are yet to emerge and it’s a little early to be celebrating dramatic savings in annual operating costs. I have already seen one government project that I know is so under-costed, it will take the supplier in question into bankruptcy unless they are able to renegotiate down the line. Yes, the bigger systems integrators were insanely expensive in their quote for what was needed. But insanely cheap is a short-lived improvement.

A comment was made by Tom Loosemore, deputy director of the Government Digital Service (GDS) responsible for the projects quoted above:

“We don’t talk to IT departments other than to ask what legacy can offer”

That’s not a healthy comment and was not well received at the conference where it was made. Today’s IT legacy is just yesterday’s innovations gone stale. I think the GDS could look to the automotive industry for how to better embrace IT as part of doing business. The current approach may be saving a lot of money in the short term (and that’s an understandable driver in the current economic climate) but there are going to be consequences.

Seeking innovative ways to use technology to solve business problems is a good approach. But assuming it is a panacea for all IT projects is not.

References