People and processesChange ManagementHas cloud been a mixed blessing when it comes to collaboration?

Has cloud been a mixed blessing when it comes to collaboration?

The sector sees value in collaboration as a way to reach digital transformation nirvana - but we may still be further off than we expected

Digital transformation has become something of an IT industry marketing term – possibly as much as collaboration has. Yet, while we may baulk at their over-use, the actuality of the two when done successfully – using connectivity and technology to improve delivery of public services and empower intra- or cross-organisational endeavour to save money and join up formerly disconnected silos of effort – means that almost all of the UK public sector sees value in their pursuit.

Why? There are two main reasons: resource and capability, say commentators: not all organisations have access to specialised expertise, and by collaborating with others they can share knowledge, time and experience without the additional payroll costs. In parallel, access to specialised expertise in another public sector organisation can ensure that you ask the right questions before you commit to a transformation project and reduce the chances of unforeseen delays or costs.

“You can make better progress and better decisions as you are all signed up to one version of the truth,” is the important verdict from Mike Richardson, one public sector IT leader who has gone through the Lymington Project – a joint initiative between Southern Health and University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trusts and which is using collaboration technology from Kahootz. “Having a central repository for programme files has promoted information sharing and helped clarify and record individual organisational perspectives, and the collaboration service engenders a sense of ownership by individual groups because everyone can see and contribute to project documents and as such they feel part of the information chain.”

Given these drivers, there is at national level something of a direct push to ‘make’ us work closer together on transformative IT work. Take healthcare: traditionally, technology in the NHS didn’t talk to systems in even the next department, let alone another Trust or an external organisation, resulting in fragmentation and disjoined care. But a new common technology platform, the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), could start helping change that by transforming services by providing a reliable, efficient and flexible way for health and care organisations to access and exchange electronic information.

As Martin McFadyen, Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media Business, states, “If hospitals, GPs surgeries and community hospitals can all use common standards and share information, patients will face fewer delays, receive treatment faster and enjoy a more tailored and personal service. HSCN enables this at the same time as enabling greater collaboration in procurement and encouraging the market competition essential to driving down costs for health and social care organisations.”

Ground level success?

HSCN is a very high-profile attempt at fostering collaboration and others add that such initiatives are being accompanied by a lot of ground-level collaboration that we just don’t see or hear about. “Organisations are sharing best practice, skills and knowledge about how to use platforms, software and emerging technologies, discussing customer service initiatives,” claims Gavin Rimmington, Head of Business Change & IT at YPO. “There are many small ways in which public sector organisations are supporting each other’s knowledge when it comes to transformation projects. There is larger, more visible collaboration too, such as joint ventures, joint procurement, supplier management, too – but for every instance of visible collaboration there are tens of conversations bubbling under the surface.”

Not everyone is so shy: Civica is closely involved in the Worcestershire Hub Partnership, made up of Malvern Hills District Council, Worcestershire County Council and Worcester City Council, a group of local authorities sharing services and benefiting from a partnership with the private sector to deliver integrated services at a lower cost.

“Through our partnership with the councils to manage their customer contact, we are enabling them to reduce the number of customer contacts made through traditional channels,” the vendor’s Executive Director of Managed Services, Gary Bell, claims. “Through use of integrated technology and automated processes we are also making new channels available and encouraging citizens to move towards self-service delivery.”

“Local authorities that have already taken their first step in shared services are bringing together their respective talent and specialisms to better support their constituents, whilst seeing the benefits of reduced costs, integration and stronger working relationships with those they already worked with,” adds another shared services supplier, Chris Bartlett, Business Unit Director – Public Sector at Comparex. “Ultimately, this results in a more refined and valuable customer journey for those supported by the local authority.”

Barriers

Further examples of sharing exist featuring councils up and down the country, highlighting how there’s a real willingness to share assets and knowledge. All too often though, instances are thin on the ground. So, what’s holding the sector back?

Many stakeholders say that a ‘bed blocker’ in making shared projects more of an everyday occurrence is the drag imposed on the public sector by over-reliance on older, legacy systems, whose wholesale replacement is probably just not realistic in budget terms (and even more so in a period of permanent austerity).

“Many [public sector teams] are still playing catch-up due to capacity shortages and a general lack of digital skills and training,” worries Civica’s Bell. “The other issue is the approach to transformation projects. Digital disruption isn’t a single project, it should be viewed as an ever-evolving strategic journey that all parties should collaborate on; however, too often this is not the case as organisations get bogged down with business-as-usual operations and so innovation stalls.”

Then, there is the simple fact we may just not have the right delivery mechanism yet. “Although it’s such an obvious thing to do, there haven’t previously been the appropriate platforms and processes in place to effectively facilitate that collaboration,” points out Jadu’s VP Richard Friend. “We’re still in the early stages, in all honesty.”

Another impediment concerns on when it is and isn’t permissible to exchange data across organisational boundaries. As Virgin Media Business’s Martin McFadyen points out, “While it’s essential, of course, to safeguard personal data, sometimes this is used to create barriers to sharing information. Strong leadership and clear guidance are really important in creating the right culture to enable information sharing across the public sector.”

What is the real contribution of the cloud ‘big boys’?

Others say that the impact of cloud on public sector project work also needs to be acknowledged as something that has somewhat impacted interest in collaboration across teams…for both good and ill, perhaps. Some argue that the cloud ‘big boys’ of AWS and Microsoft have opened up CIO acceptance of cloud in the sector, but they can’t be allowed to dominate it.

“The role technology giants play in relation to competition shouldn’t be overlooked; their entry into the market has credentialised digital and cloud services, which has created a positive knock-on effect for the quality and value of cloud services available to the public sector,” UKCloud’s CTO Leighton James told GovTech Leaders.

“However, there is risk of these technology platforms becoming too big to fail for the public sector and there is an opportunity for the sector to encourage diversity and avoid getting locked in to pervasive technology. Competition in cloud is vital, as a monopoly inevitably stifles customer care.”

“Where some major cloud vendors fall-short is that they make it difficult to migrate off of their infrastructure, thus creating ‘lock-in’ to a hosting arrangement that may no longer suit the customer and increasingly become unaffordable,” warns Peter Ford, Public Sector Industry Principal, Pegasystems.

However, not all the suppliers we talked to for this article agree, with many arguing that market dynamics will in the end guarantee that public sector buyers will continue to have broad enough choice.

“The continued growth of other major players in the web services market such as IBM and Oracle will ultimately help drive the costs down and promote more innovation within the government cloud market,” predicts Graham Woods, director of enterprise solutions consultancy W3Partnership.

Others see value in a potential new class of market players altogether: “What we have started to see from government is a greater focus on supporting tech start-ups and SMEs which will bring further disrupters and innovators to market which are important, challenging both the big tech players to stay relevant and provide the market with additional platforms,” thinks YPO’s Rimmington.

“There will always be a place for the big tech players, but it will be the disrupters which push innovation in both platforms and increasingly, customer service.”

So, the verdict has to be that we want collaboration, it can really help us get nearer to delivering genuine digital transformation in a time of pressed budgets, but we still haven’t quite figured out how, and cloud may not be the ‘obvious’ way to do it. That then begs the question of what is?

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