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Digital transformation: the future is multidisciplinary

It's pretty clear at this point that when we use the term digital we are not simply talking about technology a lot of the time, argues Catherine Howe.

‘Digital’ in its widest sense refers to an approach to radical systemic change which is often (but not necessarily) enabled by digital and networked technologies.  This change is both social (culture and behaviours) as well as technical (process design and infrastructure).

Digital isn’t the point of the change - but it is both a driver and an enabler.

It's not just technology that is changing - it's everything - and while that has always been true, the pace and unexpected consequences of digital and networked technologies mean we are constantly trying to make sense of a fast changing context.

Considering digital in terms of systems thinking is vital - and also highlights the fact that a truly digital solution requires different behaviours and not just technical changes to a process or interface.

Arguably, one of the great unsung skills of the 21st century is not just the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams, but is the ability to pick the right disciplines in the first place.  In the context of digital, really understanding what some of the newer disciplines, such as service design or analytics, can bring is critical successful digital projects, as is the ability to pick the 21st century version of more established professions such as social work or planning.  More broadly than that, innovative and creative solutions to complex problems demand we provoke, question and explore ideas which are outside of our own professional practice.

Digital transformation requires that technical disciplines come together but also work dynamically and iteratively with other experts.  To do this effectively we need to approach projects as researchers and work hard to understand our own and others’ inherent bias towards our own areas of expertise.  We need to be careful not to try and claim a project for one area or function and look at it instead across the whole system.  We need to pay attention to language in a way which feels pedantic at the time but saves pain later when we realise that a term like coproduction, for example, means different things in different contexts.

On a granular level this kind of multidisciplinary working is hard.  For example, the release manager who is used to gateways and rigorous testing procedures can find it difficult to get their head around the role of the DevOps who are responsible for the persistent release environment.  The service designer who is used to focusing entirely on the end user can find it frustrating to unpick a back office process which represents decades of professional expertise.

Bringing multidisciplinary teams together, and helping them thrive, will be a core competency of 21st century leadership and a cornerstone of what it means to unlock the fullest social and technical potential of digital transformation.  The ability to appreciate and welcome different viewpoints and keep an open mind will be vital, as will the ability to balance this openness with a vision and drive to keep a project moving forward.  Effective digital transformation by this measure is about systems leadership with multidisciplinary teams being a mirror of the system you are trying to influence - using this as a guiding principle for putting teams together gives you a head start.

This article was first posted on www.publicservicedigital.com. Catherine Howe is a solutions development director for Capita.

Photo of Catherine Howe

Catherine Howe

Digital innovation director, Capita

Catherine is an expert in how communities embrace digital innovation, be it in smart cities, digital democracy or social change. She has over 15 years’ experience, throughout the UK and Europe, looking at how new technologies can best benefit individuals and communities and how the Networked Society can prosper from the coming innovations that will impact where and how we live and work. Working across the public sector she is currently helping deliver projects such as the ground breaking NHS Citizen initiative as well as digital leadership programmes within local government.

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