A bit like a dog and its owner, technology often resembles the characteristics of its owning organisation: in big, hierarchical organisations, technology has converged on the equally big and vertical. The result is inflexible information systems “built to last” – when the rude reality is that business, legislative and policy changes come thick and fast, requiring constant change.
The era of technical verticalisation is coming to an end, with the duplicated technology silos and expenditure of the past displaced by a marketplace of platform-based components – such as identity, payments, storage, hosting, notifications, analytics etc.. These components can be re-used and reconfigured on demand to meet a wide range of business functions and processes. There’s also a hugely beneficial impact on cost reduction: one government project recently secured pricing from a cloud provider at a monthly cost of less than half of one percent of what an established in-house provider was able to offer.
This transition from vertical closed silos to open horizontal components has significance well beyond cost and restoring the expertise of the in-house IT department: it also impacts the future direction and configuration of our public services. Organisations will now be able to move away from their inherited (dys)functional silos towards what my former colleague Jonathan Murray (EVP and CTO at Warner Music Group) has termed the “composable enterprise”: departments able to adapt dynamically, re–configuring themselves as needed to address the changing and ever-more challenging demands of our public services.
“The Composable Enterprise business model takes horizontal process integration to an entirely new level by assuming that operating functions, processes, products and services will be subject to continuous change and re-configuration ...The two greatest [challenges] will undoubtedly be organization and technology. This is change management in extremis. Change of this magnitude requires visionary and forceful top-down leadership. Implementing the Composable Enterprise approach is not going to happen from the bottom-up.”
The implications of these changes have yet to be fully understood in many organisations. The role of technology needs to escape its traditional cycle of narrow thinking – such as making an existing transaction marginally less inefficient than before, or a novel-length claim form a page or two shorter. Such tinkering has been tried numerous times before over the past 20 years: we’re running out of lipstick to put on the pig.
The end of the era of expensive, fossilising vertical technology towers provides the catalyst for dismantling inefficient vertical organisational structures. It’s the perfect moment to align organisation and technology operating models to deliver fast, flexible, high quality data-driven public services rebuilt around the citizen and able to respond quickly to evolving political and socio-economic demands.
The challenge has never been just technological, but about how we ensure the public sector has the right incentives and vision to use technology as a lever of genuine transformation. Doing so will require robust, skilled leadership able to oversee radical process redesign and the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy – and even of entire organisations – in order to enable precious resources to flow where they’re really needed: into better frontline services.