Rise of the robotshttp://trapeze-transformation.com/wp-login.php?action=logout&_wpnonce=fd1a30ee8e

I have been thinking about software robots, yes I know I should get out more.  It’s been on the horizon for quite a while but after a workshop at IBM it’s now feeling like it’s about to pass the tipping point and become a hot topic.

They are a bridge to transfer data between systems that have been designed to work using a human to enter data.  That data would be much better transferred directly machine to machine using an agreed digital protocol.

Emulating a human with their own login ID and deliberate delays to stop the interface falling over the software robot is for a purist an ugly use of the machines. The software robot is therefore a fudge, a bodge, a cut-and-shunt, a sticking plaster, a steam car or whatever derogatory term you want to use for a non-ideal solution that you know will be a bit unstable, a little unreliable and need constant tinkering to keep it working.

However, its potentially a much smarter fix than asking your human workers to do this task and often its workers with relatively high skills levels doing this critical but frustrating low skill work which makes it even worse.  Teachers, social workers, medics, police and many more skilled people can end up re-keying data because the systems don’t interface.

In the real world that machine to machine link may not happen any time soon.  It may not happen because you don’t own all the systems involved, it may not happen because it’s too expensive or just because it’s not high enough up the priority list.  Or you may have to wait for planned system obsolescence and replacement in a few more years.  In the real world you may need that bodge.

As bodges go the software robot is not a bad one as long as you accept its limits along with its strengths.  It will reliably do predictable and repetitive work, its relatively cheap, it’s relatively easy to configure and adapt and you can clone as many as you want when you get it right. On the down side it doesn’t cope with change or variation, like the socially inept savant, it will need constant supervision by someone who understands it to deliver its potential.

In time they will get much smarter and more tolerant of the mess us humans are happy to live with, but right now I think they are smart enough to deliver some big benefits.

That’s going to make for some interesting relationships in the work place as we integrate these robots into our team structures.  We will have to learn when and how to deploy them and how to apply fixes to them in real time when things go wrong.   In return they will take a lot of the drudgery out of our jobs and allow us to do more of the interesting value-add stuff.   Used well they will improve team efficiency radically.

And it won’t take these things a century to go from black Model T to Tesla Model S it’s probably going to be much less than a decade before they are intelligent enough to move up the office pecking order starting to start making decisions with us and for us.

So we better make some space for them…. and add the robots to the Christmas party invite list….

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Dacing with wolves?

Having blogged about the dangers of ‘riding the tiger’ of the big service contract and getting eaten I realised I was focussing a lot on the negatives of contracting out services and failing to talk about when it works, why and how.

If you are old enough or have an interest in 1980’s cinema you may remember ‘dances with wolves’ where, to cut a long story short, Kevin Costner learns how to live with wild wolves, be accepted by them and generally not get eaten.

Kevin did it by understanding the wolves, the wider ecosystem of the plains and where he and the wolves fitted in rather than trying to project his values and agenda onto them.

He learned that if he acted like a meal they would eat him, if he acted like a threat they would attack him and if he acted like a member of the pack they would cooperate.

It also reminded me of research work I did while at the Ministry of Defence looking into the common features of successful procurement teams which was sort of similar.

These teams had to be able to cope with requests ranging from getting a machine gun mount onto hovercraft in Iraq ‘yesterday’ to contracting scores of ‘jingle’ trucks to transport food and equipment into Afghanistan or a major PFI deal for accommodation in the UK.   After a lot of interviewing and analysis the rules of success that emerged were simple, relevant to most projects and have stood the test of time:

  1. Be insightful and understand a contracts objectives in context. Understanding of the outcomes or capabilities you have to deliver and how they fit in a wider strategic context and objectives, including the longer view, was critical.  It allowed teams to make decisions on when a procurement rule should be applied and when it should be flexed.  It also gave insight into what success looked like, which aspects of the procurement they had to accept, which they could shape or trade and which they could dictate.Care for the elderly in their homes or in residential settings are good examples of situations where there is a need to understand a service and contract in context.  There is a need to come in on budget, but there is clear evidence that forcing price down too far is causing suppliers to withdraw from contracts and/or the market entirely.   One significant cause of NHS bed blocking is that sufficient care home beds are not available in many areas of the UK as the market is unviable.   If you destroy the market then ultimately you fail to meet your primary procurement objectives.
  2. Be dynamic and willing to take decisions and calculated risks. When we had confident, empowered and skilled commercial teams that were able to understand requirements and willing to take calculated risks, we saw consistently good outcomes.  Counter-intuitively, risk-averse teams were ultimately much higher risk as failing to take smaller controlled risks created the much bigger risk of failure to meet the procurement objective.

An example of this relevant to local authorities and health providers is the Netherlands model for community nursing care which does away with all performance indicators bar patient outcomes.  Nursing teams do what their professional judgement says will get the desired patient outcomes.  The evidence is that this delivers better outcomes at much lower cost.  It is a radically different approach with risks, but failing to innovate may ultimately be the biggest risk.


  1. Strong leadership and trust matter. In this context ‘strong’ did not mean ‘macho’ leadership, it meant leadership that listened, would make decisions, that the whole team trusted and which gave clear direction.  It also meant leadership that could push back if they thought their customer was getting it wrong and which contractors trusted and could ‘do deals’ with.  Strong leaders and teams get good, equitable and sustainable outcomes.  In ‘wolf’ terms it meant thinking and acting like the agile wolf not the wounded buffalo forming a defensives circle.This is likely to be increasingly important as local authorities and other providers need to work in big complex local and regional partnerships.  They will require leaders that really do lead in terms of demonstrating and supporting new values as well as setting the strategic direction.  They will need leaders that draw the best from their specialist teams. They will also need leaders that are able to accept failure as part of the process of testing and innovation and not be discouraged by it. 

Which brings me to the punchline which is that if you don’t want to be eaten – by tigers or wolves or other metaphorical beasts – then you need to understand there are no quick fixes in contracting or commissioning.  It’s about understanding the fundamentals and doing them well, which includes accepting you and your requirements are part of a bigger picture that you need to understand, you can’t retreat into your organisation and just huff and puff and re-tender until something good happens.

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Block chain http://localgovdigital.info/localgovcamp/This was a session I requested and big thanks to Alexander Galt for sharing his knowledge with us.

I’m not going to chance explaining how blockchain works, but it was very interesting to talk about what it makes possible and what that means:

  • First of all forget bit coin and speculation. Yes blockchain is the basis for crypto currencies including bitcoin and yes if we invested early and bought a few hundred dollars worth of bitcoin we would now be millionaires.  But, currency is just one use and it relies on the very high degree of difficulty in faking or forging a blockchain.
  • Think self-managing contracts. The blockchain allows you to build in payment and transaction rules that can allow the money to ‘manage itself’.  This might mean giving a person in need of personal care a bockchain grant which included all the rules on how it could be spent and with who.  Providers engage with the blockchain owner and can draw out money against the rules and total approved sum.  No need for a finance department processing a blizzard of invoices and payments.  Although they would need to set up the block chain.
  • Think self-reporting contracts. If you build customer feedback and reporting of social outcomes and value into the blockchain then you can have real time insight into whether you are spending money and achieving outcomes.
  • Think self-managing contracts and social investment bonds. The blockchain can engage through an API type interface with external public or private data feeds.  It might make and increase winter fuel payments based on local temperatures.
  • Think a vastly reduced need for back office and back office case management systems. If the block chain self-manages the spend and outcome reporting then your back office job becomes one of learning and improving how you do things.

As well as a growing number of crypto currencies the banking and insurance sectors are looking at block chain as are many public sector providers.  Their drives are massively reduced cost in administration and much greater transparency of money flow and outcomes.

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Digital is dead long live self self-service?

Digital is dead – long live self-service  http://localgovdigital.info/localgovcamp/

This was in my view an excellent session with a lot of engagement from those participating.  I put it up as a topic feeling it would be useful to push beyond the idea that we needed to focus on self-service not digital.  The discussion took a different more useful direction.

  • The first point to be made was that before you look at technology and channels you need to look at the ‘social contract’ and citizens expectations and this is changing rapidly. Councils will in future have to do less and citizens will have to do more to stay within shrinking budgets.
  • While it was recognised that there were ‘hard boundaries’ in terms of equality of access and legal obligations to provide services, service levels and types often have very wide discretionary range.
  • The question of how much or little we expect the council and citizen to do in any service area or process is – within legal obligations which are often don’t have clear boundaries- a political issue. This implies a debate and end ‘contract’ or agreement.
  • If our view on that balance is out of line with local citizens and politicians we will get major push back and it may prove untenable. In order to get it right we will need to have real dialogue and remember that communications means listening as well as talking.  This implies blending and layering the proposition to match the relationship.  Paying a parking fine is probably assumed to be self-service, getting advice on social care crisis more human facilitated.
  • This debate has to look at end-to-end service and customer or social outcomes, you won’t make good decisions based on the cost and value of single contacts, services or channels. This was felt to be a big challenge in organisations that budget and measure outcomes often in narrow service and channel stove pipes.
  • It was felt that providers and users may be diverging in their technology choices and platforms. Providers still seem stuck with laptops, stand-alone platforms, forms, accounts and portals.  Users have moved to mobile devices, apps and platforms –including social media- with multiple uses.  Why can’t I log in with Face Book?  Why can’t you just grab my contact details?
  • Allowing delivery strategy to become a political issue was seen as a blocker for progress.

Overall the message was that while we must get more self-service to drive costs down and improve use of technology, this has to be done intelligently and as part of a process of re-defining the ‘social contract’ in terms of expectations of what the council and citizen do.

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Local Gov Digital 2017


Yesterday I was at Localgov camp in the fine offices of Bristol City Council, the event continues to go from strength to strength and I really feel policy makers and elected members need to get it in the calendars.  They need to be talking to the ‘digital’ people not just the IT crowd.

These events get better and better and continue to be over-subscribed despite the unconference being on a Saturday and fit well with the concept of customer centred service transformation.


I have written up two sessions for the unconference as the next two blog posts

Digital is dead long live self service



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The digital age of cooperatives and a bit more buccaneering

I have just returned from the 2017 cooperative council’s innovation conference in Oldham with a lot of ideas on mutualism and a potential renaissance of cooperative ideals in my head.  While I would not dare attempt a potted history of cooperatives – are they 500 years old and Scottish, over 150 years old and from Rochdale or more exotically are the articles of agreement of 17th century pirates in the Caribbean an example of cooperatives –  I have been inspired to think on their future.

Certainly the reasons for forming a cooperative historically tended to be the same and many centuries later are relevant to growing numbers of our citizens and communities:

  1. To gain access to food, oppose and avoid exploitation by merchants seeking unfair profits on basic necessities. This certainly seems valid; if you have the resources then just ask Alexa for a few figs or a guava and she will have it delivered, possibly within the hour by drone.  If you don’t have the money and live in an excluded community you may struggle to find affordable fresh fruit, veg or meat.
  2. To gain access to fit accommodation at an affordable price. In an age of increasingly unaffordable houses and potentially a shrinking stock of social housing this feels very relevant.   In 21st century Britain it feels like we need new an innovative ways of building more fit and affordable housing and giving people access to it.  The medium of the internet may be new but the idea of housing as a social need not a commodity to invest in or an asset to exploit seems more relevant than ever.  If we dont then there may be an exodus of the young from our cities.
  3. To avoid exploitation and promote the common good in work, education, health and social welfare including sickness benefits and pensions. In the age of a potentially ever more fragmented society zero hours contracts, self-employment, online working, aging population, ever more mobile populations and increasingly self-funded education it feels like this is more relevant than ever.  If the state is not providing what you and you community needs you may need to take on responsibility yourselves.

I really don’t know what the future will hold, but I came away a little more hopeful that the mega-corporations and national politicians may not get it all their own way as government shrinks.  There is a history of cooperation at local level and with modern digital platforms it may be enough to restore some balance to a situation that currently seems very one sided.  Perhaps we also need a little more buccaneering local spirit to fight the globalised and, pan-national entities imposing their view of the world on us.

In case you don’t believe me on the pirates they had a workers share scheme, death and sickness benefits, health and safety rules, code of conduct at work and a clear disputes resolution process.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate_code

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Love Your Place

Birmingham 3rd July 2017

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