Episode Nine: Everything In Silos, Forever and Ever, Amen

by danhon

1. Everything In Silos

Only one topic today, and a rambling one, at that.

I’ve been working in capital-A advertising for nearly over 3 years now – just under a year at Wieden+Kennedy London, and coming up to 3 years at Wieden+Kennedy Portland. In that time, one of the most interesting things I’ve been exposed to is basically a side-effect of management, strategy and organization. In the first case was that of being a digital import – someone from the outside who’d been brought in who didn’t have an advertising background and was, to have to use an unfortunate saying, a digital native.

One of the unintended aspects of being a digital native – at least, one who had a background in a couple of startups – was what it takes to make digital things. Which is to say that my time spent at Mind Candy and Six to Start building both stuff and teams there taught me a lot (whether explicitly or implicitly) about how to get people to work together.

And I suppose that’s been one of the things that I’ve been noticing, sometimes jealously, from afar at what the UK’s Government Digital Service has both been doing (and accomplishing) and the way in which it’s gone about doing it. The latter has sometimes been not explicitly communicated, but in conversations with people at GDS, I’ve always been interested in how they’re going about what’s a singularly herculean task: transforming the UK government into something that is, in our current parlance “digital first” and “user centered”, the latter of which is excusable in GDS’s role because it speaks to the delivery of services in a more cost efficient way for government, and the latter, because what else is government for, if not user centered?

Now, if you haven’t already read Russell Davies’ A Unit Of Delivery[1], you should go and read it now.

There’s one particular part – right at the end – that I want to unpack, and it’s this bit: “Digital is Not Comms, And It’s Not IT, It’s Your Business”.

I look around at all the rhetoric around “digital’ and see nothing but wasted opportunity.

Whether it’s the absolutely tools that we all use to accomplish our desk-bound “information worker” jobs, there is a certain lack of fit-for-purpose that means that everything is just-about-good-enough.

Just Good Enough is bullshit. Just Good Enough means that a company doesn’t have to produce a useable site that provides easily findable manuals or reference for its product, because Google will index that content eventually. Just Good Enough means I can just about use your site on my phone. Just Good Enough means that the timekeeping software that everyone in the building uses (and has to use – otherwise the entire business screeches to a halt) is only Just Not Irritating Enough to have to deal with. Just Good Enough means that you can whip up a Word document that you can save and then email to me for comment and I can open it up where it’s saved in my Temporary Outlook Files and then save it as Your Document – Dan Comments.doc in my Temporary Outlook Files and then email it back to you, where you’ll revise it and then send it to a project manager who will then rename it Your Document – Dan Comments – Final Feb 4 2014.doc and then email it back to me for more comments. Or where Google Docs is Just Good Enough to use single sign on so that in theory we can all use it together, but that its text formatting doesn’t quite work and not everyone uses it.

It’s bullshit. Just Good Enough should be offensive. Just Good Enough is the digital/software equivalent of a bridge that doesn’t quite kill anyone most of the time, instead of one that actually does the fucking job.

And this is where it comes back to what Russell’s talking about in terms of user needs, and not users. And I swear I’m going to turn this around and make this relevant in a way, and I guess here’s my stab.

The companies that are going to win – and by win, we don’t have to use some sort of zero-sum 1% capitalistic fallacy, by “win”, we can just substitute the phrase “be successful” – are the ones are good at putting “digital” at their core. Here are some things that are about putting digital at their core:

– the consumerisation of IT, where users are actually voting with their feet (and wallets, to the excitement of procurement departments) for devices and services that actually meet their needs

– the slow growth in b2b enterprise software that actually works, and no, I’m not going to use Basecamp as an example, because it’s what everyone always uses and all it does is move stuff that used to be in email into Basecamp and seriously, it’s not about *Basecamp*, it’s about *how you use Basecamp*, and really, have you ever used Basecamp and been in a big project? Everyone has email turned on and it’s just a giant blerg.

– Devops, and things like the direct line you can draw from Flickr to Etsy to Github

See, the thing about devops (Developer Operations), is that – from my I’m-not-a-devops-person vantage point, it’s digital supporting the product, and being part of the spine of the company. We’re seeing a lot of companies like Etsy (and like web-era Facebook) that saw a competitive advantage in terms of the quality of their tools. You see this in companies like Pixar, where internal software engineering for processes like pre-production and story design are elevated and, well, important. There’s a little of it in dogfooding, but what’s intriguing is the new era of digital-centric companies – even ones like Warby Parker – where digital is just central to their operating. And it’s a new kind of digital that’s supposed to work, as opposed to something that’s been forced on you by a requirements committee somewhere.

At its most basic, this “Digital Is Your Business” is the breaking down of silos and the leadership decreeing (and leading by example) that solutions to business problems have digital at the heart. Software is indeed eating the world, and the situation where someone has a business problem that can be solved (and has a potential solution), but that can’t be acted upon because “digital” or “IT” is the responsibility of someone or some group over there, and not here, as opposed to firmly distributed throughout an enterprise, just feels instinctively wrong now.

This is what the threat of the consumerisation of IT is, then, to entrenched divisions and groups. It means that five years ago, the apocryphal story of someone at the BBC being quoted however many tens of thousands of pounds for a Rails server from outsourced IT deciding to, bluntly, fuck it and just stick an AWS instance on their card and expense it was the inevitable sharp end of the wedge: digital, devolved from some sort of priesthood that existed to serve itself, and instead unlocking its potential to the people who have problems that need solving now, and don’t particularly care whether something is a solution or not, or has properly gone through procurement (and yes, I realize that this opens you to the possibility of a raft of ‘Just Good Enoughs’).

But you can’t have one without the other. Leadership that reacts to teams reaching for their cards and organically using AWS or Basecamp or whatever because it’s Just Good Enough and flies under the procurement radar, or reaching out to Get Stuff Done with small external groups rather than using internal resource by asking: “what’s the problem here, and why are our employees choosing to react in this way rather than internally?” and fixing that internal provision of resource are the ones that are going to win. Which is, again, why GDS is building internal capability rather than external.

In a conversation with GDS’s Russell Davies about this, the one comment of his that stood out was that none of this was new to those of us who’ve been working in digital or interactive. There was no stunning insight, no secret sauce, no magic recipe. Just that, from a leadership and organizational point of view, digital was an important concept to align around as a way of achieving their goals: and then, GDS conceived on (again, my external reckoning) with teams constructed around delivery. It was just that the will was there.

So here’s the thing. (And this type of wrapping up inevitably feels like a Church of England sermon or Thought for the Day).

Siloed organisations, where digital is “over there”, aren’t going to succeed. At the very least, they’re only going to unlock a fraction of the opportunity that’s available to them. At the very worst, they’ll find themselves both slowly (“oh, they’ve only got a few tens of thousands of users”) and quickly (Blackberry, Nokia) disrupted. Runkeeper will come and eat their lunch. Netflix will become the next video network. Uber, much as I hate them for being Uber, will come along and work out that hey, digital actually can make your business of cars that move things from one place to another better for the end user.

They’re just not.

It’s just a question of how fast we get there.

My brother, when asked when video games will finally be treated as mainstream culture, used to say: “When enough people die.”

GDS is showing that we don’t need people to die for digital to work. We just need leadership that wants it.

[1] http://russelldavies.typepad.com/planning/2013/04/the-unit-of-delivery.html