The UK has all the building blocks in place to build the world’s pre-eminent digital economy. What is holding us back is not lack of funding, access to skilled people or lack of access to technology. Instead, I would argue that our ways of working have not evolved in the way required, at all levels. The good news is that we are better than we think, but it’s patchy and not yet general practice.
Pic by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Let’s start at the top level, where organisations set and deliver their strategy. The word “Agile” means many things at different levels, but the core tenets of user centricity and build – test – learn are a bit like the rules of Go – easy to learn, hard to master. The approach is the anti-thesis to taking a big decision and announcing it to voters and shareholders that CEOs and ministers do so enjoy. In many ways, the key resource that we lack is humble leadership: decision makers genuinely interested in their customers and willing to change their view of the world and their service to better serve users. This unwillingness is not simply driven by greed, arrogance, or pride – leaders know that their organisations will often also resist change, as it means that jobs will be lost and created, and power transferred to different places. Old-style corporations are not well adapted to the ever-changing world we live in, and it is not surprise that the companies who tend to deal best with change are the new tech-companies, built and organised around ever updated digital services. Some of the worst examples of culture clash comes when old style industries try their hands at new ones. To give an example, when film making companies try to get involved in video game creation they are often unable to understand that the core value driver of a film (the story telling) is distinct from the core value driver of a game (the gameplay). This makes them unable to understand and manage the production in a meaningful way, often leading to a product that tells a mediocre story through a poor interactive experience. Again, a humble leader would learn from those the know, as well as ask for continuous customer testing rather than make gut-based or marketing led decisions.
The solution is not simple or short-term. We need a new set of leaders, ideally grown up with Agile and with ample time on the shop floor and close to customers. In my opinion, such leaders do not necessarily come from the top universities, or universities at all. We need to stop looking at academic performance as an indicator of fitness for business life, and increasingly open the door to diverse backgrounds. At Transform we have good experience with apprentice programmes, complementing graduate programmes to generate a more diverse cohort of thinking and skills. The challenge is that these skills will take time to reach the top layers unless we start actively supporting and promoting young people, and stop thinking that long service is the best qualifier for leadership. I would like to see more C-level people in their 40s or even 30s, with a broader set of skills and mindset much closer to the customer. We must also encourage diversity of thought by adopting DEI programmes that not only recruits a diverse workforce, but also helps under-represented groups progress up the career ladder by offering both “hard” training in skills, as well as “soft” support around self-confidence, stakeholder management etc.
The multi-skilled workforce is a necessary to be able to deliver in an Agile fashion, and Agile delivery is required to build a multi-skilled workforce. This creates paradoxes where a 30 year old requires 40 years’ experience across multiple fields. The solution has been, and is still, T-shaped people, with deep specialisms through training and experience, complemented with broad understanding of other skillsets then their own. So, the web designer must have a good understanding of both the ways to understand users, as well as the technology required to bring his/her designs to life. Again, working together with other specialists and learning their skills, as well as explaining what you require to carry out your role, is core to this.
So, how can we make the transition from an old leadership and a workforce that is siloed in a world where skills are in acute shortage? Well, fortunately the tools are already in place. I have already mentioned apprenticeships, and remote and flexible working is the other development that organisations should embrace rather than making up rules about people having to be present in the office (often the wrong location) between 9AM and 5PM (often the wrong time). Tools for online working and flexible working hours allow staff to become more productive whilst still maintaining their off-line life (including better access to people with families and disabilities) and makes it possible to recruit from all of the UK rather than in a London centric fashion that drives up wages for a few while leaving the rest of the country behind. An added bonus is the reduced ecological footprint that such practices give.
It is true that for some professions remote working reduces productivity but I doubt that holds true for professions where quality is more important than quantity – which includes coding, designing and, arguably, leadership at all levels. Britain was to some extent formed in the industrial revolution, and further tempered through the production required through a couple of world wars. Now we find ourselves in the 21st century, and the old thinking must give way to a broader, much more flexible set of skills. These exist – and when you combine them with our first-class universities, our scientific research and our world leading culture sector, we are in a position to maintain and strengthen our role in the world. All that we lack is a little humbleness – an ingredient which is easy to find but hard to swallow.
This blog post appeared on techuk.org as part of their annual Building the Smarter State week.