We have all heard our fair share of IT horror stories - projects which ran wildly over time or failed to deliver benefit. What have we been doing wrong? Surely there has to be a better way?  In the second in a series of posts on the digital university, Nick Skelton, SUMS Associate Consultant, explores how to be successful at digital, by putting people above the technology.

The first computers date back to the 1950s. A profession of people grew up to apply the new technology. The IT profession has made many mistakes along the way, but it has learnt from these. An important part of the maturation process was to systematize processes, through ITIL, PRINCE2 and a veritable alphabet soup of best practice frameworks. While helpful, these have not saved us from expensive IT projects, which often fail to deliver.

What are we missing?
Let’s consider lessons we can draw from a similarly recent profession – city planning – and another far older – gardening.

After World War II, ambitious planners came up with shining visions to transform the UK’s cities. They drew up blueprints to demolish whole districts, in favour of a modern utopia of freeways, tower blocks, and elevated walkways. Efficiency was the watchword – the traffic must be kept moving. These plans looked good on paper, but the planners did not consider the human experience. Many plans were never implemented, and of those that were, few succeeded as intended.

Any plan is out of date as soon as it is drawn up, but you can’t redesign a building halfway through construction. Thankfully, we can change code more easily than concrete. So with digital, an adaptive, agile approach is desirable. The feedback you get from staff and students is gold dust – value it and adapt your plans accordingly. Don’t propose multi-year, multi-million, all-singing, all-dancing digital programmes, which are likely out of date even before the business case is approved. Instead, consider short six-month projects, which aren’t too big to fail, and which can adapt over time.

How can we do it better?
Today’s best city planners design places for people. They have abandoned abstract notions and think at a more human scale. They take account of feedback and adapt plans accordingly. And they understand how people live and work not in theory, but in practice.  Good digital planners, like good city planners, don’t sweep away the old. Their initiatives are rooted in the tradition, culture and values of what is already there.

Think of developing a digital organisation as we develop a garden. A successful gardener will have a long-term vision of what they wish to achieve. They will plant many seeds, some of which will flourish and some will not. The gardener adapts. They feed and water the garden. They nurture the green shoots which emerge and remove those which fail to flourish. The garden is constantly changing. It adapts and weathers the seasonal storms. If we care for it, in time it will be productive and beautiful.

SUMS Consulting is owned by our members and is rooted in the culture and traditions of higher education. Our digital consultants are highly experienced using technology to improve the cultures and working practices of organisations. To learn more about how SUMS Consulting can help you with digital initiatives email us at sums@reading.ac.uk or call us on 0118 378 4304.

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