The way we work, learn and
generally go about our lives is largely inherited from a previous era, when
information was mainly stored and sent by paper, customers had to visit
their banks and shops to undertake transactions, the economy only functioned
9-5, Monday to Saturday and most work and learning could only be done in a
fully-equipped office or college.
We are in the middle - some
would say only at the beginning - of the "Information Age": no
less significant than the first industrial revolution, which formed the
foundations for economic development over the last 250 years. The deeply
rooted reliance in our business lives on paper, filing, meetings, travel,
offices and other trappings of a previous era should now be challenged. Yet
many organisations - especially in the public sector - are attempting to
embrace the new whilst retaining the old. The net effect is often that
massive investments in ICT infrastructure are failing to deliver the
In spite of the e-commerce
bubble bursting, new companies are already stealing market share from
established players in many sectors by totally redefining accepted norms for
cost base and productivity. Companies that only a decade ago were stock
market and media stars now look like dinosaurs.
A similar picture holds in the
public sector. Most local authorities have spent heavily on technology over
the last decade. Desks are now equipped with modern, high-speed, networked
computers. Millions of e-mails are sent daily, intranets abound, documents
are prepared using advanced word processors, financial analyses use
spreadsheets and presentations are colourful, interactive and delivered
using LCD projectors. Yet, in spite of all this, business processes, job
descriptions and working practices are often much as they were a decade
The information age
Putting aside the hype, the
information age can be seen in the context of history as follows:
The point of this chart is that
the pressure for economic growth leads to innovation in communications
which, until the 20th century, was entirely concerned with the physical
movement of goods and people.
The telegraph, telephone, telex,
fax, mainframe data processing and corporate data networks enabled the
growth of the multinationals through the last century. From the 1960s
onwards these technologies permeated most large and many medium-sized
corporations. In many organisations, including local authorities, these
technologies streamlined labour-intensive activities and ledger clerks,
messengers, telephonists and typists found themselves jobless or needing to
retrain. Yet, for most people in these organisations, work carried on as
What is different now is that
information technology has moved out of the data processing department and
specialised applications onto every desktop and reception counter and into
schools, libraries, public access points, cybercafés and homes. ICT is no
longer an adjunct to work, learning and service delivery - it is at the
heart of most business activities.
In contrast to conventional ways
of doing things, ICT can be cheaper, faster and better. And the difference
is getting more pronounced: unit costs of computing and telecommunications
are falling by 25% a year - more than can be said for any form of physical
Practice what you preach!
As consultants specialised in
helping organisations understand and get the most out of the information
age, we have a particular interest in using technology effectively
We abandoned our offices in
Cambridge two years ago and now work from our homes, meeting together
regularly in coffee shops and pubs; when clients visit we rent a serviced
Staff have unmetered Internet
access at home: ISDN or (where possible) broadband; internal messaging and
real-time communications (voice, messaging, video, meetings, etc.) uses the
Operational filing is almost
We usually set up a secure
website for each client, containing working documents, forums,
presentations, surveys, analyses, final reports, etc.
None of us commute; work for all
of us dovetails better with family life.
From our clients' perspective,
we are able to deliver an excellent service in a highly cost-effective way.
Furthermore our own use of technology and working practices can act as a
catalyst for our clients to take a more innovative approach to work in their
The 'e' challenge for local
Perhaps not surprisingly, our
experience working with local authorities is that several are struggling to
set up effective programmes. The problem often seems to be a combination of
conservatism, compartmentalism and confused thinking - the latter at least
in part fuelled by the wide range of apparently uncoordinated Central
Government and European Commission initiatives.
Another issue is a tendency to
water down proposals to make them more acceptable to Senior Managers and
Members. The problem with this is proposals then tend to get further watered
in various committees until they are not worth doing.
In response, we have prepared
the following checklist to help those involved in setting up and running
local e-government projects.
Start with a clear and empirical
statement of what you want to achieve: lower costs, higher productivity,
greater quality, better services, improved learning outcomes, staff
attraction/retention, better access to opportunities, work-life balance for
staff, social inclusion, environmental gains, regeneration, etc.
Be multi-dimensional: recognise
that several benefits can often be delivered simultaneously, for example
technology-enabled flexible working can help the organisation deliver
out-of-hours service cost-effectively, whilst allowing staff with caring
responsibilities to work and reducing peak-time traffic demand.
Set up an autonomous and
multi-disciplinary team with senior management authority and buy-in to do
things differently: in particular get ICT, HR and property working together
on the same agenda.
The team leader should be a
visionary and a mould breaker, with a track record of practical achievement
and a "can do" attitude in the face of adversity.
In all the excitement about IT,
don't forget about telephony.
Run information age awareness
seminars covering the basics as well as the more advanced ideas - it is
surprising how many people are afraid to confess a lack of basic ICT
Involve staff at all stages
through briefings, surveys, workshops, etc.; the best ideas will not
necessarily always come from the most senior people!
Always bear in mind
"Occam's razor" and apply it ruthlessly at all stages: over
complication often masks confused thinking; don't be impressed by third
party proposals written in a form that you don't understand.
Exploit what you have already
before investing in more technology; also stick to "standard"
environments where possible (Windows, Office, etc.).
Understand and exploit the
remarkable potential of the Internet, both internally and externally; some
of the most exciting applications of the Internet include remote access
"tunnelling", real-time messaging and multi-media
Err on the side of trusting
staff to act responsibly: many organisations ban valuable tools such as
mobile phones and Internet access on the basis that they may be
Practice what you preach: break
away from the traditional agenda / committee / minutes culture and put the
project on the intranet - don't produce paper!
Where possible, deliver quick
wins: these will help give the team credibility and overcome resistance from
Set up pilot projects and be
prepared to fail: if all your pilot projects succeed, they are probably not
Go for it! A surprisingly large
number of 'e' projects in local government produce plenty of reports but
don't seem to actually implement anything.
The falling costs and increasing
capabilities of ICT and the growth of the Internet are changing the rules of
work, learning and service delivery.
The risk in local government is
that, in spite of big investments in technology infrastructure, old thinking
and work practices will stifle the opportunities presented by the
The creation of an autonomous,
multi-disciplinary team, operating outside the normal departmental
structures and measured by results, is one way of overcoming these barriers.
Bob Crichton, HOP Associates
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.hop.co.uk
This is the text for Bob Crichton's presentation at the
conference "Putting the 'e-' into Local Government", Birmingham
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