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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Building the Future Council

Building the Future Council

My recent post about the future council gained a lot of attention, so I thought I’d share more of the thinking that I’ve done so far. What might it look like when you re-orient a council around people and places, rather than services?

This thinking started with a question from a council chief executive a few years ago, but was actually refined through work with a medium-large (£250m turnover) corporate. Despite being very different organisations on the outside, once you got under the skin their problems were very similar. All of this work combined now forms the Stratification framework that is part of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit.

Fundamental units

The first thing to identify in the council’s case was that the fundamental unit of organisation was services. The whole organisation had been assembled by bolting services onto the side of the existing organisation, and even the radical transformations driven by austerity had not really changed that architecture. As long as it persisted, there would be massive ‘parallelism’ in the way the organisation operated, preventing efficiencies but more importantly, fragmenting data and adding friction to service, analysis and communication.

As I wrote about in the last post, the first and most important step was to re-orient the organisation around the citizen rather than the service. But we also had to recognise that this didn’t cover everything: a significant proportion of the council’s work is also place-centric, with granularity ranging from a single bin, to a building, to a whole street or park.

Hence we were left with two fundamental units that could be cross-indexed: people, and places.

Unifying the citizen interface

Unifying the customer interface

With the citizen at the centre of the organisation, it was clear that we needed to unify the customer interface. The multiple touchpoints of the old architecture were highly inefficient, creating confusion, cost, disparate data and a governance nightmare, with little oversight.

A unified customer interface means a common written language style, with content written to the appropriate standard for the majority of the audience. It means ensuring that there is a single answer to each question, not multiple, conflicting answers. It means using a common design language to help those with limited English or poorer vision to understand information, whether presented in a face to face, written, digital or video context.

A unified customer interface means a coherent view of that experience across communications channels, using insight from contact centres to drive digital development, and vice versa.

Ultimately it led to the proposal of new internal agency, equipped with the skills and resource to handle these tasks, where previously responsibility had been distributed across multiple teams.

Making services more transparent

Creating coherent service units

Behind the unified communications layer sit the services, the core propositions of the council: education, public health, adult social care, environmental services, highways, revenue and benefits — obviously these will vary depending on the type of council.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in the delivery of any of these services. But one thing was clear when looking at them and their interactions inside the organisation: it was hard for them to understand each other’s work and for leaders to really understand their performance.

As organisations grow and develop over time their activities often become more complex on the inside and opaque from the outside. Complex isn’t inherently bad: these teams are dealing with challenging issues. But the lack of transparency makes many things harder: partnering with other teams, reporting success, analysing failure, inducting new staff.

We created a template to help these teams revisit their understanding of their core processes, their inputs, outputs and key metrics so that the could be more easily communicated to others. Sort of a paper ‘API’, that described how you might interact with them. Ultimately, it would be good to turn paper into code.

Creating a common data layer

A common data layer

Underpinning the unified customer interface and more transparent interaction between services is a shared data layer. Once you acknowledge that there are only two fundamental units that the organisation deals with — three if you count numbers (finance) — it’s clear that the council needs many fewer software systems and databases than it has acquired under a service-oriented architecture (not this SOA).

The realities of the current estate, data protection legislation, and security choices may mean that you don’t actually condense everything down to a handful of systems. But as a notional vision, a unified data store of people and places is valuable because of the business value it can drive. Most people have few interactions with their council, and those they do have are relatively mundane — even automatic. But for those people who need more intensive support, more coherent information can drive much more effective intervention: earlier and more targeted, meaning better for the citizen and cheaper for the council.

External API

External interface wrapper

The nature of the post-austerity council is that much of its work is commissioning, either to third parties or to its own services companies. Streamlining these interactions is less important than streamlining the customer interactions, but nonetheless valuable. Building a largely-digital wrapper that allows the two way flow of information for commissioning, payments, the sharing of data, and the monitoring of SLAs, would speed the flow of information right through the organisation, and ideally improve the delivery of services.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Are we buying the coffee or the shop?

Are we buying the coffee or the shop?

Whitbread is continuing to open more Costa Coffee shops predicated on the continuing growth in demand. That growth has slowed, but the company believes we are entering a ‘third wave’ of coffee consumption, where we are willing to spend more per cup. Yes, that means you, with your single-estate cold brew.

While consumption patterns are interesting, I’m much more interested in what the continuing expansion of the chain says about our need for third space, a living room beyond our home, or a work space beyond the office. To the naked eye the coffee market looks saturated. And yet more and more continue to appear. Why?

Third space

The reality is that we are living in increasingly densely-packed circumstances. This is nothing to do with immigration, which is both culturally positive and economically necessary. Rather, it’s about housing.

Multi-generational homes are now increasingly common. As we stay single later and house prices grow ever more un-affordable, we’re sharing houses with our peers, later and later in life. Or renting the smaller spaces that we can afford in cities, where have little room to relax or socialise. Sometimes, we need to escape.

Developers are building what someone described to me yesterday as ‘student accommodation for grown-ups’: giant blocks of small apartments with high-quality shared spaces to make up for the lack of space to entertain or relax inside the flat itself.

The new pub

The irony is that we had a huge network of shared spaces in this country. Places that were designed to be the ‘home away from home’ for those who couldn’t afford the space, or the heat, in their own home. Places where groups could meet and socialise. Places where at one point in time, a lot of business was done. They’re called pubs, and they’ve been closing at a rate of 27 per week.

Of course we also had a very strong coffee shop culture in the past. Perhaps this is just cyclical. But nonetheless I think this trend is interesting, particularly for the way it counters this idea of us disappearing into our digital devices.

Social spaces

If we really were becoming an antisocial nation of nerds, lost to our laptops, then these physical meeting spaces would have much less value. Yet sat in one of my favourites yesterday (Manchester’s Chapter One bookshop/coffee shop), less than a quarter of the tables were occupied by solo workers. Most people were there to meet, talk, work and socialise. This was pretty typical of the other shops I stuck my head into. Hardly a scientific survey but enough to validate my suspicions: these are social spaces and they will continue to grow.

Human beings are collaborative by nature, fuelled by connection. We need spaces to make those connections, for business or pleasure. The pub fell out of favour for all sorts of reasons: homes well-equipped for entertainment, changing attitudes to alcohol, and a richer array of alternatives. But what’s clear from the continuing — almost baffling — growth of the coffee shop market, is that our need for connection has not gone away.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Engineering adaptability

Engineering adaptability


What does accelerated change mean for organisations? Accelerated adaptation. Or put another way, agility.

Agility is an over-used word in business these days. The perceived sexiness of agile development methods spilled out of the product labs and the IT function and into the rest of the business. It’s a useful word but you have to define what you mean when you use it outside of those product or project contexts.

Perhaps it first makes sense to define what it means in those contexts. Here, agile development is about formalised alternative approaches to the classic ‘waterfall’, where all possible requirements are captured at the start of a project and then development continues until those requirements are met. Agile approaches are instead iterative, testing requirements with the customer at every stage. This avoids long product builds where the end result has either diverged from the customer’s original (or real) need. Or products that become less and less fit for purpose over the life of the project.

Organisational agility

In a broader organisational context, agility is about the ability to change rapidly in response to a variety of signals. Agile methods may be part of this response but this is really about the capability of the organisation to receive those signals, process them, and act on them quickly.

For clarity, that’s three clearly different capabilities that I’ve defined before:

  • The antennae to detect change signals from inside and outside the organisation and particularly from adjacent spaces — often blind spots from which the most serious challenges may come
  • The ability to process this information and build a response plan rapidly, gaining assent from, or at the worst compelling change in, the relevant parts of the organisation
  • The flexibility to act on that response plan at speed

Change signals

Examples of signals that might trigger this chain of responses include:

  • Internal functional failure or degradation
  • Accelerated direct competition
  • Adjacent market competition
  • Customer channel shift
  • Collapse of product or service relevance

I’ll break those out in more detail

Internal functional failure or degradation

How fast could you rebuild one of your core business functions if it appeared to be failing? How much disruption would it cause? How would you know it was failing in the first place?

I haven’t worked with an organisation where one or other unit wasn’t failing the rest. But they often don’t know they’re failing and nor do their managers — at least, they can’t prove it objectively. They don’t have the benchmarks against which to measure the performance of procurement, finance, HR or IT teams.

That’s not to say they don’t have some metrics in place, but these metrics are usually operational and based on a historical idea of how that unit should perform. They don’t measure its contribution to the organisation’s wider goals.

This isn’t easy. Part of the problem is often a disconnect between what these functions think their role is and what it should be for the long term health of the organisation. Only with a proper alignment of expectations and measurement built around those shared expectations will you ever get a signal that something is wrong.

Accelerated direct competition

The most obvious form of signal is direct competitors applying the accelerating effects of technology to overtake. But this is perhaps the rarest example I see and the one for which most organisations are reasonably well prepared. They are focused on the rear view mirror, so see these organisations approaching in the outside lane.

Adjacent market competition

This is the blind spot. The one that people don’t see coming until it’s too late. Or that they are too arrogant or ignorant to acknowledge. This is the Netflix vs Blockbuster battle. Kodak vs digital (and now the rest of the camera industry vs the smartphone). It’s HMV vs iTunes or Yellow Pages vs Google.

Customer channel shift

The way customers communicate with their suppliers, and buy from them, is changing.

Case in point: a couple of years ago a friend asked me to speak with the MD of a small-ish (a few tens of millions) manufacturer. He was about to push the button on a new website costing a few tens of thousands — perceived as a big investment for him. He had cold feet and wanted to check his strategy before paying out.

I looked at his business — selling to service providers, retailers and manufacturers — and asked him a few questions. One of the first was “Do you sell on Amazon?” He got quite annoyed at this point. “You’ve got the wrong end of the stick. We only sell to other businesses.” I convinced him to bear with me and go onto Amazon’s website, and type in some keywords related to his products. “Oh shit,” was his response, or words to that effect.

To his surprise (though obviously not to mine), his competitors were already selling their wares there. More to the point, his distributors were selling his products there. And he had no idea.

Collapse of product or service relevance

The lifespan of products is getting shorter and shorter. Take the ‘hoverboard’ for example. In the space of six months it went from appearing under the feet of celebrities and costing the thousands, to being a huge phenomenon (and costing hundreds), to being effectively banned from the streets, killing the market.

Monitoring such rapid rise and fall in relevance is a challenge.

Tom Cheesewright