Metal type and paper

If my reckoning is right, it’s 25 years since I started my first job in digital, with PA New Media in Leeds. Please excuse the self-indulgent thread about the things I’ve seen in that quarter century.

I’ve had ringside seats to watch two massive service sectors – first news media, then telecommunications – turned upside down by people’s use of the internet and web technologies. I could easily be saying the same of retail, or travel, or banking.

I semi-regret the day I commissioned realtime web stats for a newsroom without being clear on the intended outcomes, then watched in horror as the whole site pivoted from editorial values to chasing clicks. We live and learn.

I worked within a complacent national oligopoly, whose longstanding barriers to competition enabled it to operate in ignorance of its own inadequacy. For a while our great scale did insulate us from our customers’ desires.

In the course of a few quarters, we incumbents found our business models unbundled, and our defensive moats overwhelmed by the rising tide of human expectations.

Consolidated and commoditised, the survivors play by someone else’s rules now. Nobody pays £1.50 for a 10 second ringtone anymore.

I’ve learned that digital disruption is a force that sweeps through whole sectors, propelled by the way people really experience technology (not the way we imagine they should).

True transformation creeps up, imperceptibly at first, through the everyday choices of diverse users and frontline staff. Often, the shift comes first for the most vulnerable, the people who need our service the most, or are excluded from its mainstream.

If you’d wanted to know where news media and telecoms were heading a few years ahead of the curve, you could have hung out in an internet cafe where visitors and migrants read news in their own languages, and used voice over IP to phone home.

Our job is always to meet people where they are, and work with them as partners to make their service better. Organisations lacking the agile operating model to do this sustainably have no right to exist indefinitely.

I remember, quite early in my digital career, looking down Eastgate at Quarry House, the massive postmodernist headquarters of DWP and the NHS, thinking there were the services that really made a difference to people’s lives.

What were the chances, back in the noughts, that specialists in digital era user-centred design could find a way into this fortress of new public management? I’m grateful to all the people who opened the door and keep it open for us now.

Yesterday I looked out at the city from a second floor window of Quarry House, with an NHS rainbow lanyard round my neck. How can I help this great national institution get a little bit closer to all the people it serves, and give them care fit for the digital era?

Nye Bevan, the NHS’s founding agilist, told us in 1948:

“We shall never have all we need. Expectations will always exceed capacity. The service must always be changing, growing and improving – it must always appear inadequate.”

Original source – Matt Edgar writes here

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