I think it is easy to get into a state of mind where technology becomes the be all and end all of any digital strategy. The new CMS is going to make everything better….or Twitter is….or that iPhone app you are working on. The reality is though that when push comes to shove it all comes down to having the right people in the right places at the right time. Good, innovative people will find ways to do good work even if the technology they are using is restrictive junk – getting the tech right just improves their success rates.
I’ve written before about my dislike of the term ‘digital natives’ and how I prefer the ideas the came out of the TALL team at Oxford Uni around the concept of ‘digital residents’. It isn’t about age or education it is about having people around who live and breath this stuff. People who understand the possibilities and equally important can see how those possibilities fit in with their own professional environment. Increasingly though it is clear that understanding things alone isn’t quite enough – you need to be able to *do* stuff as well. I’m not in the ‘everyone should code’ school of thinking but more and more I believe you need to be able to contribute in a practical manner – especially as budgets get squeezed. Whether that is with HTML & CSS, a little PHP, some rich media editing skills or a deep understanding of Google Analytics I don’t think matters – there are jobs for everyone these days! I’d love to have a GDS style army of developers etc at my disposal but the reality is I have a team of two and we do what we can and then we juggle the budgets to bring in some talent to make us look good.
The outside ‘talent’ is vital I think. Having a roster of people who have the skills you lack, who understand what you are trying to achieve and who you trust (especially to point out better ways of doing things) makes such a big difference. I try to work with small, very specialist companies. Often just one or two people. I am able to build relationships with them and I know what they can do. There are risks with this approach for sure – single points of failure and the possibility things get too cosy but I remain convinced it is the best way forward. As soon as you start working with larger agencies etc your relationship starts to be with middlemen and that rarely ends well.
The idea of the ‘critical friend’ is one that I have really come around to in recent years. It is so easy to become overly evangelical about digital solutions – especially if you spend alot of time in the Twitter echo chamber. Like Maslow sort of said “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I find having people around who aren’t naturally inclined to see a digital solution to every problem but also aren’t close minded and are willing to listen to arguments invaluable as they really keep you honest and force you to take a hard look at things. This often leads to better solutions digital or not and certainly lessens the chances of false starts.
Last but far from least is the need to have support from sufficiently senior people to get things done. I have little time for the JFDI way of thinking these days (though I certainly have been in the past and maybe will again) – it is unrealistic for so many people especially in the public sector. The fact is most people who talk like that *know* they have cover from above and it is that fact that empowers them. I still think the greatest achievement of the Government Digital Service was to recruit genuinely digital savvy people into properly senior positions.