We all work better if we have the right tools for the job. Hammers are good for nails, but if you try hammering in a screw you lose two ways – it’s much harder work, and even then it’s still not very effective.

We still rely on the tools of ten years ago

Not so long ago, the core productivity tools of the civil service were the file, the fountain pen and the tea trolley.  Then the first and second waves of the computer revolution swept over the civil service as they did everywhere else. The file and the fountain pen were replaced by Microsoft Office  and a keyboard. The tea trolley wasn’t replaced at all.

Things have continued to change since then – the computers have got smaller and are more likely to be laptops, the internet arrived (and access to it arrived slightly grudgingly a while later) and collaboration tools and social media have started to have an effect, though still a very patchy one. But most people in Cabinet Office still use IT to do pretty much the same things that they were doing ten years or more ago, using only slightly updated versions of the same tools.

New technology gives us better tools

Meanwhile, three big trends are changing the range of tools available to help us work effectively and have already transformed the way many organisations work:

  • Networks Humans are social animals and work is a social activity. Finding people, sharing information and collaborating with them are all critical to getting things done. Over the last ten years, the power of technology networks has massively enhanced the power of human networks.
  • Mobility For a long time work has been a place. We talk about going to work, we don’t much talk about work coming to us. We have big expensive buildings where the work happens, because that’s where we used to keep the stuff we needed to work on. If you make physical things in a factory, you still need to be there. But we make things from information, ideas and communication, and those aren’t always tied to a location any more. Combine that with small and very portable computing devices and the constraint of location starts to fade away
  • Apps Traditional software is big and complicated, packed with features which most people don’t use most of the time. That has two consequences. The first is that they need training and support to be useful, the second is that it is difficult and expensive to change them. Modern software tends to be lighter, more focused, more flexible and more social. That makes it much easier to match the tool to the job.

Better tools will let us work better

The most visible part of this project will be about replacing technology. But the most important part will be about our finding ways of working differently.

That’s why it’s exciting and important that the GDS team is using the design approach described by Emily Webber in her post a few days ago, with the starting point being user needs.  With the rest of my team, I am going to be one of the alpha stage user testers, working with technology outside current Cabinet Office systems to identify ways in which we – and others across Cabinet Office – can work more smartly as individuals and teams.

But my main role – and my reason for blogging here – is to make sure that this project contributes to our wider ambition to make Cabinet Office more effective as an organisation. Part of my job is to be be the connection between this project and our wider organisational strategy – which is all part of a much wider ambition for transforming the way we work across the civil service.

Wanting to work differently means that we need to do some hard thinking outside the technology project. We want better IT to support a more effective organisation, but creating a more effective organisation is about a lot more than better IT.


This post was first published on the Cabinet Office Technology blog in December 2013.  It is © Crown copyright and published under the Open Government Licence v3.0. I have copied it here mainly to make it easier for me to find, on the principle that the main purpose of blogging is be a form of outboard memory.