Coworking. Not just for trendy freelancers and startups.

Earlier this week I was reading an article about the rise of coworking spaces in recent years. In case you’ve never heard of it, coworking is the practice of individuals or small teams working from shared office space. Aside from enabling these groups to have a flexible base of operations without committing to fixed leases, these spaces have created flourishing communities and helped connect and inspire people from differing professions around common goals.

This had me pondering – couldn’t the benefits of coworking office space be applied to absolutely anyone, not just freelancers and startups?

For a while now the technology has been in place where people can work from literally anywhere (see the definition of digital nomad if you want to be green with envy). I’m at a point where I could do a large chunk of my job armed with just an iPad and an Internet connection. So why aren’t we encouraging more staff to spend office days in places other than their desk? Especially faced with mounting evidence that the traditional office environment is bad for productivity.

Yes, it’s good (essential even?) for staff to spend time with their colleagues to foster those working relationships that are so crucial to getting things done and making the job enjoyable. However, I think it’s equally important to work in different spaces to shake off the ‘default’ mindset of plodding through routine, doing what you’ve always done before.

So, speaking from experience of my own sector – what if we had shared working space for all the Housing Associations in Cardiff? How many serendipitous conversations and relationships would be forged simply by sharing the same working area whilst doing the daily email trawl?

Let’s throw the net wider. Why not open that shared office space to Housing Associations in Wales? What sort of ideas might get swapped over a cup of coffee in the kitchen?

Let’s go broader again – why not open that office space to Local Councils and Health Boards? What common struggles could we talk about over lunch? What sort of connected approaches might we start defining?

Whilst we’re at it, why don’t we host regular unconferences in this space to help flesh all these new ideas out to find wider support?

Obviously, there’s a whole raft of logistical challenges to solve. But I think it illustrates that working in this sort of environment could result in huge opportunities for collaboration and connecting the dots across multiple sectors. In a broad sense it’s all about removing barriers (physical, hierarchical, political, organisational) to prevent people toiling in isolation, duplicating or expending effort in the wrong areas.

In this way we might be able to get on with the business of tackling the wicked problems that matter most, together

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IT is dead. Long live IT.

I’ve worked in the IT sector for 14 years. The majority of that stint has been spent in public & third sector organisations. In all that time I can’t remember the pace of technological change being quite so rapid.

And that’s by no means bad thing! I love new technology and I’m a big fan of change but it’s something that most organisations in our sector struggle to keep pace with.

The IT department were once the purveyors of everything digital. We introduced the first PDA devices that you had to sync via USB to carry your email around. We gave people their first laptops that came in suitcase sized carry bags and weighed as much as a small toddler. We told people that social networks & instant messaging platforms were okay, but weren’t a serious communications replacement for trusty old email.

So what happened? Has IT become a lumbering dinosaur?

Technology has become mainstream and the barrier for using it is getting lower all the time. When I was five I got my first computer (Amstrad CPC464 FTW) and it came with a ring bound manual that was comparable in size to the Boeing 747 owners guide. I took me the best part of a day to figure out how to load games from the cassette deck. This year my daughters (2 & 3 years old respectively) had Android tablets for Christmas and within 10 minutes they were happily using them unaided.

People from non-traditional IT backgrounds are becoming skilled in areas like mobile and cloud because they use that technology in their day to day lives. The hardware (mobile, tablet, laptop, desktop) has reached a point where it’s increasingly less important than the actual services people are interacting with. And the expectation is that those services are available wherever there’s an Internet connection.

Of course, your trusty IT department play a HUGE part in ensuring you can access your work anywhere. But as more and more services migrate out to the cloud, there’s less to administer in house and less that can go wrong on the user end of the equation.

In the last ten years I have witnessed a huge bump in general computer literacy. I fully expect new generations of staff to be very comfortable with Google-ing their own problems and fixing their own stuff.

The cold hard truth is the average in-house IT team are rapidly losing relevance in their current guise.

The problem is we’ve been saddled with the role of gatekeepers of change for far too long. If any part of the organisation wanted to do things differently, it has to work with IT to map out the processes, scope the project, procure a system and implement it. Great right? We’re valuable!

Whilst it’s lovely to be needed – it also creates a bottleneck. It’s not unusual for an IT department to run with somewhere between 5 and 10 projects simultaneously on top of day to day activities. And they just keep stacking on top of each other as the year progresses. Constant time slicing between complex tasks slows everything down to a crawl. In turn this makes the organisation less responsive and less able to change course when required.

Course correction is more important than perfection.
– IBM CIO Jeff Smith

I think it’s time for IT to relinquish control. We need to start looking for technology leaders outside the four walls of our departments and take a far more collaborative approach. Let’s have the confidence to make information freely available and co-author solutions together rather than unwittingly imposing decisions and limiting options.

Working within rigid hierarchies just isn’t going to cut it going forward. IT spending is dropping and IT teams are typically under resourced. We simply cannot hold back the floodgates of change. It’s time to decentralise IT and tap into resources across the breadth of the organisation to surface real technical challenges that need addressing now.

By adapting the role of IT to one of innovation and learning delivery (rather than just purely service delivery) we immediately extend our shelf life AND provide a far better platform for change to our organisations.

Why Don’t We Build A ‘WordPress’ For Social Housing Systems?

A random twitter conversation with @PaulBromford prompted a discussion about how small the market is for housing systems in the social housing sector. There are a handful of key players which have comprehensive unified solutions that are designed to be ‘one size fits all’.

There are a few problems with this approach.

  • They’re potentially expensive & bloated for smaller organisations.
  • They tend to be closed systems with limited interoperability with anything else.
  • The development cycle tends to be long.
  • Often built on a foundation of old technology.
  • Documentation is generally hard to find or non-existent.

This had me thinking about alternatives.

What if we had a ‘WordPress’ for housing systems? WordPress is an open source blogging framework (you’re looking at it right now). Anyone can download WordPress and use it completely free of charge. You can even openly modify it to suit your individual needs.

In fact, WordPress is so flexible that it’s now being used not just for blogging but for shop fronts, forums, jobs boards, support desks.. the list goes on. WordPress has become so prevalent as a platform that being a WordPress developer is now a career path in its own right.

What if we applied this approach to a platform for the social housing sector? Imagine a framework that gave organisations the freedom to use as much or as little of a system for FREE.

There are 1700 registered Housing Associations in the UK.  Rather than toiling away in isolation trying to make our ‘off the peg’ housing systems work for us, why don’t we work together on creating something that can be as diverse and powerful as the organisations we work in?

Unlike the private sector, it’s hugely beneficial for us to work more closely together – and I don’t mean so that we can all be the same, but by remixing others ideas to suit our own organisational needs. By collaborating openly with each other on a housing system framework we could..

  • Accelerate learning and ideas.
  • Drive down development costs.
  • Tackle the biggest headaches together (self service, mobile working etc.)
  • Iterate (and innovate) faster.

This feels distinctly like a market that is ripe for a good dose of disruption. Food for thought!

You want Innovation? Learn to love failure!

Innovation – a huge buzzword that has been doing the rounds increasingly for the last year or so. Technology is driving change at such a rapid pace that organisations are looking to embrace a ‘culture of innovation’ in order to be more responsive. But what does that actually mean?

In order to innovate, you need ideas. Where do these ideas come from? Traditionally the appraisal process (where line manager reviews staff performance and sets objectives) should bring ideas out into the open and get them into the business plan. In terms of sourcing ideas that are truly revolutionary that doesn’t seem to happen.

Why is that? Is it because people are not able to generate ideas ‘on demand’ during that yearly mandated period? Is it because organisational hierarchies subject anything new or challenging to ‘death by committee’? Is it because we’ve been fed a steady diet of risk aversion since the beginning of time? Is it because fluid innovation and rigid business strategy are almost opposing concepts?

I’m fortunate enough to work in a progressive organisation that is trying to make strides in these areas. But any organisation that has a rigid hierarchical structure will suffer from some or all of these road blocks to adopting a culture of innovation. It is a symptom of our workplaces being designed to tackle predictable tasks in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Let’s be really clear though, innovation is no magic wand. It is actually an inherently wasteful process that’s jam packed with failure. Even if you subscribe to a ‘fast failure’ model where you iterate rapidly through different decisions and directions you’re still working on projects that may never come to fruition.

However, we’re deluding ourselves if we pretend that there’s no failure in our normal working lives. We fail all the time, large and small, but most people have gotten good at mitigating it, spinning it or burying it. That’s a shame because we only really learn how to change things for the better when we can understand what went wrong.

So, what’s more desirable? – An intensive period of controlled failure that will deliver some valuable data in terms of what not to do. Or to continue on as we are, applying bandages to failing systems and processes and pretend that everything is okay.

Unfortunately, innovation is not just something that can be turned on like a tap. People need a sandbox in which to play and develop ideas without the crippling pressure to generate results. The key is to keep the invested resource (be that time or money) to an absolute minimum to start with. Fail fast, document your findings, move on to the next iteration or idea. Speed is essential. If you assume that 90% of the concepts you evaluate are destined to be shelved, you need to work your way through the chaff to get to the wheat as rapidly as possible. Even the chaff has a use. Imagine how valuable a few months worth of discarded ideas would be? Can you see any commonalities? Are we trying to do something we’ve already done before? Will this idea work now that external factors have changed?

Much of this thinking comes from the Silicon Valley start-up scene where small teams of developers try to capture the next technological zeitgeist before anyone else. The methodologies of Agile development are finding their way into mainstream thinking. Much of it is common sense. Build a minimum viable product (a workable prototype that has the core features) and release it. If it’s a success, iterate and build on top of what you’ve got. For those startups working long hours with meager initial funding, the key is to get to a functional product to market with as little resource wasted as possible before anyone else. That sounds pretty desirable no matter what sector you’re in huh?

Obviously, most organisations don’t have the luxury of a department dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. But in truth, I think it should be part of everyone’s job description to make it happen. It can’t radiate from one corner of the business or be demanded from the top. People need the time, authority and framework to go and experiment.

In order for any of this to work the stigma around failure needs to go. All the greatest innovators are prolific failures. What separates them from others is that they push forward and keep learning from their mistakes in search of a greater understanding. In essence, this is the sort of culture we need to start baking into organisations (particularly the public & third sector) to unleash that stored potential for creative problem solving in staff which is otherwise largely untapped.