All organisations want one thing now: an agile, integrated operating model. A system that appears super user-friendly on an app or website, but behind the scenes it’s driven by highly sophisticated people, processes, and systems, seamlessly integrating operational processes, and making thousands of complex decisions in split seconds. Look at gov.uk, Uber, Airbnb or booking.com and you’ll see fast, efficient tech with new functionality or updates released every 48 to 72 hours. Because there’s fierce competition, and that’s what people expect.
Flights at your fingertips
I have helped to deliver some major digital transformation programmes across the public and private sector. One was for the travel industry, a ferociously fast-paced sector that has joined-up the IT operation functioning in real time, behind slick systems, websites, and apps, that put the customer at the centre of the entire operation. Need to book a flight, hotel, and transfer in two minutes? Easy. Need to change your departure date by a day or two? Easy. Need to have your baggage automatically weighed, scanned, and ticketed? Easy.
It’s easy because of integration, enabling highly complex IT functions, supporting interaction across the digital architecture. Sensors, barcodes, software, scanners, and thousands of flight numbers, airline seats, hotel rooms, and transfer companies are talking to each other and sharing their data in real time. In the public sector I helped to deliver the major IT transformation programme for HMRC, fully integrating operations and systems driving tax, VAT, and workflows, so they talked to each other. In doing so, we significantly improved overall operational efficiency of the organisation, root and branch.
Rocket boosters for our IT systems
While we recognise that the MOD’s IT estate needs rocket boosters, can we really compare its requirements to those of a travel company or the tax office? I think we can. The MOD is a much more complex and multifaceted organisation – requiring multi-domain integration of systems that support operations on land, sea, air, cyber and space – but the theory remains the same. Only a highly effective, agile integrated operating model will achieve digital transformation in the MOD, in the same way as the examples above. Where all domains, people and processes need to combine to provide an effective result, which for the MOD means the protection of life and our way of life and is far more critical than booking a holiday.
The MOD’s IT operating model, its inputs, and outputs, between functions and capabilities need to achieve optimal interoperability and become smarter, more agile and better defined, so that the operational effectiveness between all 16 crosscutting enabling functions in the MOD have no gaps or blockages. Legacy approaches and unreliable infrastructure must be removed so that better, faster decisions can be made between decision-makers in warzones and in offices, at all levels, backed by rigorously accurate data held in the cloud and across secure networks.
Putting strategy into action
The MOD is making a strong start in its approach towards digital transformation, as outlined in the UK Government Digital Strategy for Defence published 27 May 2021. The strategy also outlines that a secure, singular, modern ‘digital backbone’ needs to happen by 2025.
To put this strategy into action we must begin by understanding the current picture of the entire IT estate, what IT processes currently exist, and how they interconnect. This we can perform with tools that baseline the entire system by automatically discovering all data systems, infrastructure applications, and, with the help of AI, embedded business processes that exist across the MOD today.
The technology for the MOD to work in an agile, iterative fashion is already at its disposal
From there the roadmap can be planned – focusing only on what is necessary, and delivering in agile, small blocks, continually incorporating lessons learned, and wrapping those into the next block, adding iteratively to the business value and operational benefits. This is the endgame of genuine digital transformation: achieving seamless, effective integration that is continuously improved.
Dexterity attains results
The technology for the MOD to work in an agile, iterative fashion is already at its disposal – but as a collaborative team we need to increase the organisation’s appetite for using new tools and methods. We must also shift our collective perception of risk. Starting to balance the risk of doing things at speed with the risk that current working practices – where some decisions can take months – are too slow and add unnecessary risk into delivery and operations. To work in a more agile and flexible way, manage adversarial risk, and make decisions in minutes or hours, the MOD must develop an appetite to balance that payoff.
This is a three-stage journey which requires the MOD to innovate and understand the art of the possible, to integrate best practice smartly as progress is made, and to embed efficiency throughout, adopting a mindset of continuous impact assessment and improvement.
All large organisations today understand that this roadmap is the only route for delivering true digital transformation and therefore operational success, and operational success is everything to our collective mission.
About the author
Steve Bell is a Technical Director in Atkins, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group, and a Senior IT professional and strategic advisor, experienced in transforming businesses and delivering large scale agile IT and digital services. A best practice expert across large scale IT portfolios, programmes, delivery, strategy and enterprise architecture, service management and governance. A technologist and technical strategist at heart with an enterprise architecture background, Steve enjoys pushing the boundaries of business and government modernisation through the continual development technology, particularly in automation and cloud services. He has led many large-scale transformation programmes in the public and private sectors.