Starting with People: What role should technology play in innovation? A #blabchat Round Up

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“I think it’s confusion between efficiency and innovation. Yes it can be more efficient to use to technology but it doesn’t always mean your solution is innovative”.

- Helen Scott, Business Improvement Manager, Muir Group HA

Open up Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn or any other social platform and take a look at the articles relating to innovation. I bet you will be hard pressed to find one that doesn't have technology front and centre. That’s perhaps unsurprising; innovation is defined as ‘the deployment of 'novel' solutions to new or existing problems’. In the digital age, 'novel' usually translates as new types of technology. But in the social sector, where many of the challenges we face don’t appear to be technology issues at all, should we just be thinking about innovation in terms of tech or does this risk us losing something really valuable?

We’ve been giving this some thought recently; pondering questions in the Lab such as - Is it technology driving innovation or is innovation driving technology and does it matter anyway? and in a world where social care, health care, education and housing support are predominantly human-to-human interactions, where do people come into the innovation equation?

We thought this would make a really good topic to open up to #blabchat, so last Thursday evening we welcomed regular contributors as well as many new faces to discuss the role that technology plays in innovation.

Here's a roundup of the conversation. . .

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Over the past century or so, the things we take for granted such as electricity, radio, television, mobile phones, the internet, cashless payments and 24hr access to shops services have changed the way we interact with each other and how we live our lives. As Coco Chan observed, the pace of these technological advancements is leading to a sense of continued anticipation for what might be coming next.


But, looking back a little further in time we are reminded that ‘technology’ is not a modern phenomenon at all, but how we view technology is contextual. When ancient humans strapped the first roughly hewn stone wheels to an axel, I’m pretty sure a group of onlookers gasped at the thought of what horrors might lay ahead in terms of that particular technical innovation. As Michael Saunby highlights, when people are critical of new technology, they never question the technological advances of yesteryear - such as staircases replacing ladders in our homes in the C16th. Technology today is ultimately very different from the technology of yesterday, but it is perhaps worth remembering that it is only relatively recently that cutting edge technology became anything other than analogue.


But, context aside, it feels like there was broad agreement that technology is simply a tool and a means to an end.

As Rebecca suggested, more fundamental to innovation is being able to understand the problem we are trying to fix. Neil Tamplin agreed and suggested that system/design thinking can help cut through the tech-hype and enable a focus to be placed on the actual problem to be solved. This is when people come into the equation.


Philippa Jones reminded us that the evolution of technology and that ever moving contextual slider drives a range of opportunities that wouldn't have been possible just a short while before. So sometimes, perhaps technology does come first. I’ve often thought this of 3D printing. I think we are only just starting to understand the problems that particular technology might help us fix. As Steven Russell suggested, ‘new technology opens up many new possibilities and once the first pioneers make it work, it becomes an accessible improvement solution’, and ultimately normalises, moving that contextual slider even further forward. Paul Taylor made a good point, suggesting that familiarity plays a big part too. There’s plenty of innovation out there, but perhaps the most obvious to us are the products and services we interact with tens of times each day, such as smartphones and services like Apple pay.

Our current context for technology is undoubtedly digital. Digital technology is therefore viewed simply as ‘technology’ and anyone seeking to innovate is going to want to include some technology in their solution - because anything less is just dusty and boring, right?

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Before the Twitter chat started we wanted to get a little heads up on what people felt about this question, so we decided to conduct a one day Twitter poll. We asked people what they thought were the biggest barriers to innovation.

The poll closed just before our #blabchat went live on Thursday evening. Here are the results:

33% of people voting felt that poor problem definition was the biggest barrier to innovation, 25% felt that it was people’s resistance to change, and the remaining 42% were split equally between legacy IT / procurement and too much focus on technology.


Paul gave support to the findings of the poll by commenting that ‘legacy thinking is more of a problem than legacy IT.  New technology will never be a silver bullet for problems that have beset organisations for decades’.


Whilst interoperability can be a factor, perhaps a bigger problem is the strain that 'maintaining' legacy systems often put on tech budgets at the expense of innovation and the understanding of true user need. When that means spending money maintaining a system which supports bad processes and broken services, that’s an even worse drain on resources. As Coco goes on to explain, if your service is fundamentally broken, getting rid of the legacy system and rebuilding your old processes in a new tool simply isn't enough.

So, it seems that while there is recognition that legacy IT systems can prevent development, they don’t prevent ideas. Sure, they may well be a constraint at times, but they shouldn't be an absolute barrier.


Asif Choudry went on to comment that he has heard about ‘so many great ideas that don’t see the light of day because the people who have them don’t have the ear of the CEOs and Execs. I’m sure that this is something that many will recognise. Often organisatons talk about supporting ideas, but fail to design the mechanisms and policy to allow for those ideas to flourish; it’s what we call innovation theatre.


Neil made an excellent point by highlighting that ‘just because things are ‘old’ does not necessarily mean they need replacing’. Legacy might not be innovative anymore, but it doesn't mean that it is inherently bad. If the tool is right for the job, it’s simply right for the job.


Michelle Butler wrote a great post on this subject for the Bromford Lab blog. It’s well worth a read: The writing’s on the wall

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It’s perhaps easy to blame procurement processes for failing to deliver innovation. I've certainly heard smaller tech providers venting their frustrations that it is often easier to get organisations to part with millions for a new ‘IT system’ than it is to get them to buy a £20K licence for a smaller piece of software. If left unaddressed, as we move to more platform-based technology this may well become a larger problem, but along with a shift in procurement policy, we will also require a shift in mindsets.


At Bromford, we’ve done a lot of work on the standardisation of our processes and service offerings. It’s not sexy, but as Paul commented, ‘some of the most innovative companies operate very standard operating models. It allows them to change quickly and react to the market’.

Michelle referenced the difficulty involved in managing the fine line between remaining compliant and staying flexible, suggesting that ‘more testing and proof of concept work to find a suitable solution before going to procurement’ is a good idea. As Paul suggests, whilst it’s unfashionable to admit it at work because we want to pretend that there is a science to it, most of the decisions we make are based on a hunch or a series of considered guesses; recruiting people is guessing, business plans are guessing. Prototypes are a good way to ‘guess out loud’.


Perhaps it’s an over-attachment to larger vendors who are already locked into procurement systems along with a fear of risk and our old friend the poorly defined problem that is really the problem here. We have to break the culture of risk aversion and find ways to open our focus wider than the day-to-day. To be an innovative organisation you must be great at defining problems, at generating ideas, at selecting and executing them, and at getting them to spread.

It seems that two things that could improve procurement could be a greater focus on outcomes rather than outputs and also, as Sarah Williams and others suggest, to operate dynamic purchasing / approved lists, which are not closed shops but open to join at any point.


Neil Tamplin wrote an excellent post on procurement which is well worth a read - Don’t buy that IT system if… Some warning signs to avoid technological mediocrity.

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Quite often in our #blabchat we find that all roads lead back to culture. It’s perhaps therefore not too surprising that mindsets were overwhelmingly seen as more important than skills in terms of enabling organisations to take advantage of new technology. After all, how many organisations really have the right culture for innovation to thrive? Skills seem pretty irrelevant without the right culture in place to make use of them.


According to the RSA, just 15% of MPs think parliamentarians are doing enough to prepare workers for new technologies, with 14% thinking the same of civil servants. But, based on our conversation, preparation shouldn’t simply mean skills development.


Building a culture of experimentation means building trust with colleagues so that they feel comfortable enough to #DareToFail. This means building upon the culture you already have and bringing people along with you.


Whilst it might take time, working with colleagues to build your culture together wins out every time over implementing a glossy new way of working without involving colleagues at all.

But ultimately, as Neil puts it, ‘it would be strange if the skills required didn't evolve over time to keep pace with different ways to deliver services. Perhaps our organisations need to be more amenable to gentle iterative change rather than lurching forward intermittently to catch up?’


As always, we posed the questions but our contributors really made the conversation. Thank you for providing some excellent food for thought. Next month there will be no formal #blabchat as @BromfordLab will be guest hosting #SoChatHour, so if you are looking for some conversation around all things shared ownership, join us on the 8th May between 8pm and 9pm for our next @BromfordLab twitter chat.  

Further Reading

We often come across interesting ‘on topic’ articles in the run up to or during the #blabchat itself. This time was no exception. If you enjoyed the topic and are looking for some extra reading, you might want to have a look at these: 

The writing’s on the wall, Michelle Butler, Bromford Lab

Legacy IT – the biggest barrier to transformation?, Austin Clark, GovTech Leaders

What might the world of work look like in another 15 years and are we ready for it? Asheem Singh, The RSA

How to make good technology choices, Ilya Tulvio, Made by Many

Innovation needs to start with people, not technology, Nigel Jacob, Centre for Public Impact

Low code isn’t no code, Phil Rumens

Don’t buy that IT system if: Some warning signs to avoid technological mediocrity, Neil Tamplin

Building a different culture - How to create a culture of experimentation in traditional sectors and businesses, Simon Penny, Bromford Lab