Is a digital strategy a ‘clientless’ brief?

As you all know, I am a consultant. Yes, I said it, the dirty C word. Consultants are a weird bunch, especially in a  company like Arup. We’re traditionally a bunch of clever and somewhat geeky engineers that apply their smarts to making the most impossible projects possible. It’s hard to argue with the value of that. But recently, we’ve developed into a more diverse bunch people who work on all sorts of projects in all sorts of capacities from leadership coaching, to advisory services, or strategic design.

As a consultant, you apply your time to fulfilling the objectives of a brief that has been handed to your by a client. The ‘strategy’ briefs are quite common and understandably so: the objective is to set out a framework for action over a protracted period of time. Strategies lay out the conceptual foundations to justify action in the future in a particular area. But as with all projects, the way the project is framed, the way in which the client conceptualises his/her needs is crucial to the success of these projects.

Of late, I have been involved with the development of digital strategies for local councils here in Australia. The advent of the NBN has initiated a local government conversation about what their role in the roll out of the NBN is but also, on the longer term, what are the public sector reform priorities that stem from high speed broadband. It is a very interesting field as more reliable and fast digital infrastructure is allowing the sweeping transformation of business models, service delivery models and engagement with the community.

So the impact of the NBN as piece of infrastructure, another pipe in the ground if you will, actually potentially has an impact on each and every aspect of a council’s operation. The breadth and depth of change it can engender is often misunderstood at a local level, where anything that is ‘digital’ is construed as only having relevance to the IT department.

Being in my line of work, helping clients navigate the impacts of the information age on their project or organisation, this is problem that is recurrent. There is no telling where the impacts will stop, and therefore a document intended as a digital strategy can end up including organisational change and culture change recommendations. Upon reflection, gains in efficiency, innovation, effectiveness are all things that clients are after when they approach us for this type of work. But often they are not fully prepared for the strategy that questions most of the organisation’s activities.

This is what Dan Hill found when working with the City of Melbourne on the C40 Melbourne Smart City strategy. A stellar piece of work, lots of work went into making the initiatives tangible, graspable and likeable through high quality visualisation of new urban information systems that could be deployed as a result of Melbourne harnessing the power of digital information as the connective tissue that binds all city operations together. Dan reflected on his work after leaving Arup and wrote up his thoughts in this post.

He reflected on the fact that his brief had been to focus on the physicality of internet-based services in the urban environment. But having attended the recent CoMConnect Unconference, an unconference designed to crowd source a digital strategy for the City of Melbourne, it became apparently very quickly on the day that as brilliant and well executed as Dan’s report had been, it had also been a ‘clientless’ brief. Because of its focus on the paradigm shift needed to rethink internet or real-time based services, the strategy cut across most of council’s operations without having a natural home within one of the departments and as such, is incredibly hard to implement once handed over. Fundamentally, there is a mismatch between the cross-disciplinary and cross-department collaboration a strategy such as Dan’s would require to be successfully implemented and the client’s organisational structure .

One could argue that we only have ourselves, as consultants, to blame for this mismatch: we should have studied the implementation potential of this strategy before we delivered it. Whilst this is probably true in many ways, any meaningful innovation in public service delivery at a local government level, the level which thrives at the coalface of community, will have to come through significant organisational and structural change. Digital thinking focuses the thought process on the information flows and centres this on the user. A user doesn’t care where all the data comes from, which department is responsible for what. Users have expectations of systems, and these expectations are applied to public services as much as they are to other services.

So what does this mean for the future of digital strategies? What could be more effective ways to work with councils (and other clients) to help them transform themselves to meet new user expectations? These were the exact questions I asked Emile Hooge in Paris when I was last there. Emile is pretty much my counterpart in Paris, he works for a Foresight and Innovation firm based in Lyon called Nova7 and he pointed out to me the value of prototypes to clients. Prototypes are the live, tangible proofs of concept that can demonstrate the benefits of cross-silo collaboration. It is a focused labour and a focus of participation and engagement within an organisation. And when operational, a prototype can build capacity as well as  an incredible sense of pride and teamwork to the team that delivered it.

So in the end I think there is a good case to advise clients to embark on a prototyping journey rather than developing a strategy, especially since so little of our urban environment is properly prototyped before it is implemented. If unsuccessful, just remember the consultant’s golden rule: ‘there is no bad client, there is only bad consulting’.

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