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Wake up! It's the information age

Are we taking too much old economy baggage into the new economy?

Introduction 

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 hoped-for benefits. 

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 ago. 

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 usual. 

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 travel! 

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 ourselves: 

  • 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 conference room. 

  • 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 Internet. 

  • Operational filing is almost entirely electronic. 

  • 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 own businesses. 

The 'e' challenge for local government 

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. 

  1. 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. 

  2. 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. 

  3. 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. 

  4. 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. 

  5. In all the excitement about IT, don't forget about telephony. 

  6. 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 knowledge.

  7. Involve staff at all stages through briefings, surveys, workshops, etc.; the best ideas will not necessarily always come from the most senior people! 

  8. 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. 

  9. Exploit what you have already before investing in more technology; also stick to "standard" environments where possible (Windows, Office, etc.). 

  10. 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 conferencing. 

  11. 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 abused. 

  12. Practice what you preach: break away from the traditional agenda / committee / minutes culture and put the project on the intranet - don't produce paper! 

  13. Where possible, deliver quick wins: these will help give the team credibility and overcome resistance from sceptical managers. 

  14. Set up pilot projects and be prepared to fail: if all your pilot projects succeed, they are probably not sufficiently ambitious. 

  15. 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. 

Conclusion 

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 information age. 

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: info@hop.co.uk  Web: www.hop.co.uk 

This is the text for Bob Crichton's presentation at the conference "Putting the 'e-' into Local Government", Birmingham February 2001.

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