At first glance, this sounds like an attractive and straightforward proposition – surely, we all want a smarter state, because after all, ‘smarter’ is associated with being ‘better’. We also know that progress has direct links to technological advancements, so in short, digital must be integral to building a smarter state.
But given that we are all uniquely different, how likely is it that we have a common vision of what a smarter state is? Do we all agree what good looks like and what we want to achieve? Do we understand what our current problems are and why we desire the change? And is technology really the whole answer?
What is a smarter state?
Firstly, let’s consider what we mean by a smarter state and what our vision for it might be. Perhaps it would be helpful to use a real and topical case study as an example? For those of you who monitor the news headlines, you’re probably aware of the emotive discussion around transforming our national rail service. Although there are many complex layers to this debate, my simplified understanding of the main highlights is listed below:
- Reducing the number of staff travelling on trains, so that it is ‘core’ staff only e.g., the driver and catering staff [but you can imagine that with the introduction of click and collect food orders in advance of travel, this role might also change].
- Introducing e-tickets, as an alternative to physical tickets purchased/collected from machines at the station.
- Removing ticket offices and most staff from many stations.
- Providing customers with digital support, through Wi-Fi on trains, the company’s website and apps on phones etc.
So what do these improvements mean for customers? Surely these changes make sense, after all, people are being given a range of helpful technology solutions that enable them to self-serve at their convenience. Arguably, it’s just good business sense for rail companies to reduce staff if they feel they are duplicating digital services?
But what about those who aren’t technically savvy, or don’t have the right environment, resources or support to use the tech? Or what about those who need the reassurance of speaking to a person so they can ask questions that aren’t addressed by a chatbot or pre-determined FAQs? What about those with disability needs, large and unusual luggage items, or young children with prams? What about staff, who may feel exposed and at risk without colleagues to assist them? Is their definition of a smarter state going to align to the technological vision of the rail companies? Probably not.
Even if we push the boundaries of innovation and introduce advanced futuristic technology like holograms, that still won’t solve the physical, ‘here and now’ life problems that our customers experience, and it may not offer the same compassionate care that a person would. Consequently, despite the impressive range and creativity of digital options, it feels like technology alone does not provide the full answer to a smarter state. People have different needs and this requires more thought and flexibility when we design our new world. And of course, we can’t meet 100% of every user’s need, so how do we strike the right balance?
To stand a chance at delivering meaningful transformation, we need to agree what good looks like and ask our users what they require. That leads me to my second point. Given what we have just explored together, is an innovative technical solution the whole remedy?
Is technology the answer to a smarter state?
Invest in technology and the world around us becomes richer, better, smarter and stronger!? I’d argue that this is a misleading concept, as it’s only part of the answer. Changing one part of society, or one part of a business, creates a natural ripple effect in its transformation and this needs to be planned for and managed to get the most value.
As we saw with the rail service example, technology can make a very huge and positive difference to customers. At its best, it can enable people to do things they couldn’t before, with more independence, speed and flexibility, but when we change the technology, it impacts other aspects of our daily life too. We need to be cognisant of this in our design thinking, so that we maximise the benefits without creating avoidable risk and waste.
Technology enables outcomes, but to really make the most of it and harness the full power of digital, we must understand the complete vision we are striving for. This means pausing to consider what good looks like [before we start], and what needs to change in our business environment to make it happen. The business environment is much bigger than technology: it includes processes, the organisation itself, people, policy and information.
When we take a step back and look at the big picture, we see that before we can build new technology products, we need to know what processes they will follow, what things they need to do, and in what order. I suggest that these processes should also align to our vision of a smarter state. If we use old processes, we risk embedding inefficiency in the solution and encountering the same pain points and familiar business problems. That isn’t smart!
To operate the processes effectively, and make reliable, fast decisions, we need to know what data is required at each stage, and this rationale should be explainable e.g., where do we get it from; should it be stored; what specific attributes are needed; why is the data being used and by who?
I propose that we also need to know what work and tasks the technology will do, so that we can consider how people’s job roles and skills need to change to complement it. In a smarter state, technology can do much more. It can certainly tackle routine, slow and mundane activity and free up humans to do more complex and meaningful work, like providing compassionate and tailored support to customers. But if we jump straight to the technology, we miss this opportunity and create disconnects in the design thinking. Technology affects people and people affect technology.
On reflection, I think there is a logical approach we could follow to build a smarter state and technology is part of it, but it is not ‘it’ in isolation. We need to involve people, especially those impacted, and ask them to create the vision with us so it reflects their diverse needs.
We need to think about how the smarter state will work, so our processes reflect that future intention and align to our ambitions. We need to consider how job roles and skills work in harmony with the technology. We need to understand the data required and use it responsibly. We need to consider what must change across the whole business, in multiple domains, so that the ripple effect is managed to realise maximum value and minimal risk.
Technology is powerful, but it is most powerful when it joins up with the wider business ecosystem and is part of holistic transformation. That is a smarter state!
This blog was guest written for Tech UK's Smarter State week, read more.