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Better dead than red

I keep seeing this now, and so I’m just going to put it down here and walk away.

What I keep seeing is the “better dead than red” thing, but about all kinds of business model patterns.

Public sector. Private sector. Civil/third sector. Social Enterprise. B2B. B2C. Subscription models. Having a job. Being a freelancer. Having a temporary contract. Running your own business. Being grant funded. Being an outsourcer. Commissioning. Providing….

These are all business model patterns. Some people think that in certain cases some of these shouldn’t be applied because of a variety of reasons, usually because they are less efficient. Often a moral tone is adopted in these discussions, as if one choice of business model pattern is morally superior to another.

This culminates in the “better dead than red” perspective where two tribes pushed the world to the brink of utter destruction over their preferences for different business model patterns.

It’s just a pattern. It doesn’t matter more than a few percentage points of efficiency. Harder, and more important, is the value that’s actually being provided.

Induction Checklist

One of my favourite Twitter followees is Jackie Rafferty and yesterday she posted a series of tweets oultining some of the key “benchmarks” when inducting new staff. I reproduce them here for convenience with some limited commentary.

(Update 17:32. Note: Jackie emphasised these were not in any particular order. Obviously some things are more important than others. #9 obviously ought to be the highest priority :) )

  1. How long does it take to get the login details sorted?
  2. Introductions to essential people in support service areas like Admin, Finance, HR etc
  3. Does someone take you to lunch on day 1?
  4. What do you do when the computer goes down, the printer or the loo run out of paper? (it’s the small things that trip you up)
  5. If it is a hot desk environment what are the unspoken rules? (this led to an exchange between myself and Jackie that will be part of a future blog post)
  6. Some should be expecting you and will give you time to go through this stuff
  7. There is an induction process ;-)
  8. You are told what the job is really about and relevant policies, guidelines & accountabilities are discussed with you
  9. Which mug belongs to whom? Hot drink etiquette. Process for sharing/BYO coffee/tea. Who gets the fresh milk?
  10. Discussion on the organisation’s social media policy (far fetched hope in most I suspect)
  11. (Update 10:30am) Induction is a process, not a one-off event.

Jackie said herself that these were a set of thoughts rather than a rigorous list, so please feel free to add your own in the comments and I’ll update the list.

Two conferences

Last week I attended two conferences. This in itself is unusual for me as my office workload (and meeting schedule) don’t often allow me to get out, and the cost of many good conferences is prohibitive. So going to conferences is rare unless there are bonus items involved, or if the conference is local.

On Thursday I attended “Efficient ICT” which was organised and run by Gov.NET and was staged at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in the middle of London. We heard from the CIO and Deputy CIO of HMRC, the folks running the Kent PSN, the main sponsors and a raft of seminars from people such as Ubuntu, Suse, HP/Autonomy, and lots more.

This event followed a now quite standard design pattern: the main lobby is full of sponsors’ stands and you have to go through it to get anywhere or to get coffee. You are herded back and forth between pre-planned sessions designed to maximise the time you spend with suppliers.

And the main presentations? Well, the guy behind me fell asleep and started snoring. He had the right idea. I have no clue how people get to the top of public sector ICT (both on the supply and the demand side) without being able to deliver a passionate, lively presentation. Dull, monochrome stuff and mostly missing the point from where I am sitting (more on that in another post, hopefully).

This event was free, thankfully, and I am fortunate in that I have some good friends in central London who kindly put me up for the night so the impact on the public purse was limited to an advance train ticket and my time. I also took the opportunity to meet up with some interesting people who are London-based: I would have had more value from just spending the day in and around central London just going to see different people and buying them coffee. Next time that is what I will do instead!

On Friday I was back in Devon for Open Space South West which was hosted by my employer and organised by my friend and colleague Carl Haggerty.

There were sponsors and one or two of them spoke, but there was no selling opportunity for them. The event had low overheads. All the breakout sessions were devised on the day by attendees. And all the programme speakers were up for it – passionate, lively, prepared. They had all done their homework specifically for the event, from Redfront’s ad-hoc research about what people wanted from public services all the way through to RIPFA’s analysis of the audience.

Technical problems meant one presenter couldn’t use the presentation she had prepared so she did it – without missing a beat – from memory. The whole thing just had a level of energy about it that had been completely missing the previous day.

So what am I saying? There seems to be an inverse relationship between quality and money, which is not directly causal. Events put on by the sector, for the sector, work better than events put on by, and for, people selling to the sector.

And hierarchy has a tendency to converge on mediocrity. That is all.

6 songs part 2

After last week’s post on the Six songs of me, top tweeter Janet Davis ratcheted up the difficulty by proposing an alternative set of questions. I like a challenge so here goes.

1. What song do you remember best from college/university?

I hung out with some slightly offbeat people at Uni. The song I remember everyone listening to most are “Ain’t no Friend of Mine” by The Sparkles (although a number of different versions did the rounds if I remember correctly, which I probably don’t). I’m not really in touch with any of those people any more and just now was the first time I’ve listened to it since. I really hate it.

The other song that reminds me of this period of time is “Stand” by REM. In my final year I hid away a bit to get studying done and discovered late night radio. I remember the first time I heard this song and it’s been a favourite since. I’ve never done the dance though.

2) What song best evokes your experience of a study or work trip?

Difficult. I’ve not been on many study or work trips where music has featured much, and I’m racking my brain. Null response on this one.

3) Which song is most likely to bring a tear to your eye (or to make you weep copiously)?

I’ll cry at virtually anything except music. Some of the Mozart piano concertos (especially number 20) remind me of my Mum and that makes me go a little bit, though.

4) What is the best song to kickstart your most creative thinking?

Difficult to choose just one here. Technically the answer is “anything I like”, but if I had to choose just one it would be something quite sparse. Portishead’s “It Could Be Sweet” fits the bill.

5) Which song helps you work when you really need to concentrate?

If you want to concentrate you need something quite long. “Close to the Edge” by Yes does it for me. Sorry.

6) When you’re angry, on which song do you want to turn up the volume?

Hoo boy. I’ve learned that anger is really a cover-up for something else. At those times I meditate. Preferably to Spiritualised. “Pure Phase“, “Sway“or “Angel Sigh“are best.

7) Which song sums up the person you would like to be?

I’m quite content with who I am, really. If anything I merely struggle towards being better-adjusted. For this song I am going to pick “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” by The Flaming Lips because a) I think the Lips are well-adjusted, and b) who wouldn’t want to be a black belt in karate? :)

 

Living in the South West UK is great for all sorts of reasons. We’re not so isolated we can’t get to events if we really want to, but we do get to put some distance between us and the hubbub that big cities provide; the scenery, of course, is lovely; you’re never more than a 10 minute drive from some countryside; the pace of life is slightly slower and the people are friendly.

Nevertheless, we do miss out on some things by virtue of being a bit removed from it all. Pretty well every week some of the people I follow on Twitter seem to be attending an event that I would go to if it were easy. In my own sector, the GovCamp unconference events that are so spectacularly successful have not yet hit the South West. There are some conferences locally that have been good in the past but I can’t attend any more due to cost. Something seems to be missing.

And something also seems to be missing from the events that I do attend: GovCamps are only slowly starting to attract the front line practitioners and senior decision-makers that are the people that would benefit most  from some of the ideas. The pure unconference format at GovCamps does bias an agenda in favour of what is cool rather than what is important. Difficult and complex problems don’t tend to get solved because there’s no easy way to enthuse people about them and so we end up taking bite-sized chunks off them instead.

These reasons are why I’m so pleased that my friend and colleague Carl Haggerty has tried to put together something slightly different, taking the best bits of conventional events and unconferences and mashing them up into a new format:

 

 

 

 

What is Open Space South West?
It is an event and a network, bringing together public sector providers, businesses, community organisations and academia to reimagine the ways in which collaboration and web technologies will shape the future of public services in the south west.

You’ll hear from inspiring people from across the region as well as nationally who are recognised as leaders in their field. The speakers will also lead and suggest workshops for further discussion and learning.

The event also includes an unconference format, which means that as a participant, you’ll get to shape the agenda and talk or hear about issues/challenges important to you.

The event is running at County Hall, Exeter on Friday 14th September 2012 and is free – although tickets are limited. Check out the website for full details and the frankly awesome range of speakers already booked up.

If you’re interested in helping improve public services in the region from frankly any perspective, this is probably the event you want to be at. And if you can’t make it, the hashtag #OpenSSW will enable you to follow on Twitter – hopefully there will be other remote participation options as well.

I’m looking forward to the event, of course, but mainly I’m looking forward to helping form a community of people all working together to improve lives for all – something that lasts longer and creates more value. Recommended.

 

I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking recently about what the “real” purpose of my employer is. In common with many other public sector bodies, we’ve outsourced bits of our support and front line services (and others were already in private hands by default). When we do this, however, we both lose and gain something: it’s not always a good idea (it seems, or maybe we just don’t do it very well each time) as we seem to be sort of “hollowed out” and we lose influence. If people have a problem with the way the roads are surfaced, do they talk to the council responsible or do they talk directly to the company that resurfaces the roads?

In this sort of climate it is tempting (and I have succumbed) to envisaging this kind of process taken to its logical conclusion. If a council commissions all of its services, what is it for? This thought experiment has led me to start considering local (and maybe central) government as a platform business that exists to

  • understand the needs of people and places under its care
  • search for funding opportunities that might help with those needs
  • curate a set of service providers and help to ensure the markets for each are broadly functional
  • provide a set of levers for those with a political mandate to push in order to deliver on political priorities
  • provide intelligence to all so that commissioning decisions can be undertaken intelligently.

So what we might refer to as “the council” becomes quite small really and is a hub – centred around a platform containing

  • expertise in the funding landscape, performance management, public engagement, (big P) Politics and data
  • a business intelligence toolset and competencies to crunch all the available data
  • a web channel that ties services together (in a service-oriented architecture style of thing)
  • document/records management that provides an archive of policy, actions and decisions
  • Master data management (ensures we don’t double-count people or places in our calculations, and ensures joined up case management)
  • Data warehousing (performance management, demographic, needs data on the full range of services)
  • middleware to join processes up.

There’s perhaps some political (big P again, sorry) dynamite here in that it might be seen to imply privatisation or outsourcing on a massive scale (on the scale recently attempted – and abandoned – by some other councils such as Suffolk) but I need to stress that it doesn’t necessarily mean that. It does, however, necessitate a *logical* split between those bodies/teams/people/partners that commission services and those that provide those services. The split occurs because the service provider has a different business model to the commissioner.

In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the vast majority of commissioning is done by actors outside of the council: we have personal budgets for healthcare, politicians have local budgets, other authorities or public/third sector bodies may fund developments, even the private sector might utilise this platform to commission work.

[Although my focus is on local government I wonder if this approach also extends to central government. Both exist to do broadly the same thing, just on a different scale, both currently depend on partners and service providers to do the majority of the work, and both are relatively poor at commissioning as opposed to service delivery. Maybe, maybe not.]

If we are a platform business, then that model dictates that we build for scale and reuse, in a service-oriented style. And why should each council build its own platform if we are all doing the same thing?

 

#ukgc12: 20 reflections

Personal Note: My first blog post for 6 months, due to a number of different factors and events which have made me not feel like it. Time will tell if this marks the return of my blogging habit or is just a flash in the pan. Either way, that’s ok.

There’s a trend this year following a suggestion by Dan Slee for attendees to this year’s UK GovCamp to try and capture 20 insights they gained during the unconference. I was one of those attendees so here is my stab at it. I can’t do 20 but maybe will update the post later to reflect new stuff I remember.

  1. The Government Digital Service used to be “us”. Now it’s “them”. This is as negative as I can be about it as otherwise they do great stuff.
  2. Some of the attendees are world-class drinkers. No names, no pack drill, but they know who they are.
  3. At current growth rates representatives from my particular organisation will constitute the entire attendance of UKGC18. Be very afraid. On the other hand I was really pleased with the reaction of my new colleagues as they threw themselves into contributing, networking and generally having fun.
  4. We all have a default way of engaging in conversations, which can – if desired – be deliberately subverted, with sometimes profound results. I hope to blog some more about this but suffice to say that I am grateful to Lloyd Davis for showing me the route to that insight.
  5. After going to this event for 3 years I now have “proper” friends there.  This pleases me enormously as I make acquaintances easily but not friends.
  6. Councils don’t need CRM systems. We only have them because the rest of our systems aren’t properly functional.
  7. Data Quality is the new rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the foundation on which we will build our future organisations. But currently hardly anyone does it.
  8. Whenever we dismantle a hierarchy there is an opportunity for a community to take power. We should do this deliberately if possible.
  9. Communities have business models (in the Business Model Canvas sense) just as a “standard” business function does. Whoever models it first gets the chance to shape its development.
  10. Customer Development is the primary activity of a community, specifically the testing of a hypothesis. If the hypothesis is shown to be disappointing, the community might fade away unless new hypotheses can be found. Again, more on this and #9 soon.
  11. You can deploy an IT infrastructure from “box” diagram to functioning cloud implementation in under 15 minutes. But we already knew that.
  12. There’s a guy who carries a dragon around. This is either a sign of a relatively harmless mental health issue or a very clever exercise in personal branding. If in doubt, suspect the latter.
  13. I really don’t blog enough. This is my first entry for over 6 months :(
  14. I am quite an effective useful idiot for testing the usability of software because I have basic skills in most things, neither clueless or brilliant. Hire me while I’m still in the sweet spot :)
  15. In the 3 years I’ve going I’ve seen it become more diverse. This can only be a good thing. We had a councillor and a social work practitioner this time and both had good input to give.
  16. I’m conflicted about the 1st day happening on a Friday. The Saturday crowd is, in theory, far more committed and self-selecting but we got a really good buzz off the Friday so maybe I worry needlessly.

That’s it so far. I want to develop some of these things a bit more but not sure if I’ll get the space or time to do it. We’ll see.

Anna Mar posted a useful blog on cognitive bias in decision making and its impact on Enterprise Architecture. Richard Veryard responded on Twitter asking if we wanted to fix cognitive biases in ourselves or in others.

I really like Anna’s list and it’s a useful cut-out-and-keep. Anna doesn’t have comments on her blog so this is a short response to her post.

I want to add that both the blog and Richard’s comment are a bit *technical*. The main thing, in my view, that EAs need from the psychological professions is therapy for themselves. I don’t mean by this that all EAs are sick, but simply that everyone can benefit from some kind of therapy.

There is a stigma attached to mental health, certainly in the UK. I don’t know many people who have had any kind of intervention, and I don’t really understand that. If you break a leg, you go to the hospital and they put it back together: if your mind doesn’t work optimally, surely you’d want to get it sorted out? Perhaps people are afraid of admitting weakness and think that it might cast doubt on their decision-making ability. I’m here to say this is utter rubbish. We don’t understand how the mind works as well as we would like, so how can we possibly know if it’s working as well as it can?

As enterprise architects our effectiveness depends more than anything on building good relationships. Like it or not, that begins with building a good relationship with yourself so you can effectively process your emotions and deal compassionately with those of the people you are dealing with. I used to be poor at it, but after some years of counselling I’ve improved. I would resume it again like a shot because it’s not the sort of thing you ever really master, I suppose.

As to what sort of therapy is best – I think people have to just try a few out and see what works for them. There’s a wide range of stuff available and what might work depends on a whole load of factors and may also change over time.

This is in no way specific to enterprise architects. Pretty well everyone I’ve ever met from any walk of life can potentially benefit from improving their internal processing and relationships. Some quite high-level people are surprisingly psychopathic.

I’m not touting therapy as a religion, a panacea, or a quick fix for anything. It’s just the sort of thing that, from time to time, delivers a return on the time (and financial) investment in terms of increased effectiveness and fulfilment for me and the people I live and work with.

some holiday reflections

As I said in my last post, I’ve had a lot of time to think recently. For those that are interested in the working of my brain (hi Mum) here is what I’ve concluded:

  1. I’m not a people person. Sure, I love my family and friends, and I’m not sociopathic by any means: but I’m happiest when exploring places rather than people, and things and ideas rather than “being social”. My other half is the same, I think.
  2. In the long run, the success of relationships depends largely on tactful reserve and not taking yourself too seriously. Having  spent the last 30 days cooped up inside a variety of tin cans, I think I can say we’ve cracked it.
  3. Fresh air is seriously underrated. Get some, every day, you won’t be disappointed. If you live in a city, get up early and get some – it’s cleaner first thing.
  4. My head is the most waterproof item in the known universe.
  5. Health is the thing that is most important: I realise I have had low levels of illness virtually non-stop for about 20 years. Outdoor living, less food, and daily gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) exercise has left me feeling very differently about a lot of things.
  6. I now haven’t watched more than 20 minutes of TV in the last 5 weeks. I don’t miss it and am thinking of terminating my cable TV contract.
  7. I’m now healthy, but I’m not fit (and I’m a bit overweight). My next priority is to get fit: I think it might make me feel differently about the world – again.
  8. New Zealand is beautiful and a great place, but it would benefit from an influx of talented advertising copywriters and urban planners. There is too much tendency to stick factories in beauty spots, paint buildings luminous colours and many town centres resemble industrial estates.
  9. I need to blog less, tweet less, and get off my fat arse and do something.

Black and White Gold

When you spend a lot of time driving along roads in New Zealand, as I have recently, you tend to get a lot of time to think. My thoughts to begin with were around the massive earthquake that hit Christchurch on our first day in the country, but after that I started to consider other kinds of seismic shifts that are perhaps slower moving.

Our host on the first day remarked to us that there was a debate in the country about the price of milk – the “white gold”. Apparently Kiwis pay a lot for their milk and no-one can really understand why: it is thought that there are too many middlemen in the supply chain. The fact that milk is expensive is surprising because New Zealand produces a lot: there is a lot of space per head of population and the farmland is largely productive. Now I’m no expert on dairy farming but where I come from in the south-west of the UK there is a lot of it and my impressions were that Kiwis tend to farm more intensively (more animals per square metre of land) and I saw a lot of animals moving about jammed into trucks. This is big business. What Kiwis seem to have less of is supermarket price wars: I only saw two major supermarket chains and – perhaps – the lack of competition is keeping the price higher than it would in the UK. I sense that a shift will occur here: as consumers get better informed the middlemen will be squeezed out but farmers may also have pressure put on their margins and they will resort to more co-operatives, such as happens a bit here.

The second thing I noticed was the variation in the price of petrol around the country. We visited a lot of remote areas and obviously transport costs mean that petrol is more expensive in these places. What slowly started to sink in, though, was the extent to which oil was the primary means by which communities were connected. I’ve done a bit of work with people who are concerned about bridging the digital divide in rural communities, and I can report that mobile signal is non-existent in many parts of the country: it is roads that connect communities in these places and the extent to which the entire economy is built on oil slowly started to dawn on me. Of course, New Zealand isn’t unique in this – it’s a truism to say that the world economy is built on the stuff. If peak oil theorists are onto anything at all, however, this can only mean that everything is going to get much more expensive in the future. And this is the second seismic shift: economies will be successful only to the extent that they can wean themselves off the black gold. We always think about our cars and energy when we think about this, but oil is everywhere in every part of our economies, and it will not be an easy task.

New Zealand is blessed with awesome landscapes – but you can’t eat scenery and it won’t go into your car’s fuel tank either. Its abundant fisheries, mineral and energy (hydro and geothermal) resources and fertile land give it everything it needs to succeed, but without oil no-one will visit and the resources will lie unused.

Having driven a few thousand kilometres around these beautiful islands, I’m increasingly convinced that I’m now part of the problem: we used up gallons of petrol (UK equivalent average price: £1:10 a litre of standard unleaded) and I don’t see a sustained effort to replace this resource anywhere with something better. I should do something about it.

I’m just not sure what.

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