Coping Better with Organisational Change

Technology is a given

This article first appeared in the April/May edition of Government News.

By Simon Kaplan

In surf talk, ‘Hanging Ten’ is code for heaven. It’s when a rider perfectly positions a longboard into the back of a wave so snugly they can easily walk to the front of the board and hang their toes over the nose. Cruisin!

In technology, a waveform that switches between the two states of Boolean value (0 and 1) is the signal that underpins digital communication – which is what technology is about these days. Both change and technology ‑ like the surfing variety – also come in waves, and some waves are better than others. There are the barrels (perfection) and the close-outs (purgatory), the clamshells ( a sudden fatal chomp) and the clean-ups (a wave that dumps on everyone -the entire line up).

But, unlike surfing, we get to shape the waves we ride. How can we make it so we get more barrels and fewer clamshells? Right now, the change wave in government is being driven by demands to ramp-up service delivery while operating under ever more stringent resource constraints. The ‘old ways of doing things’ won’t serve as well as they used to, and there is a hope that using technologies we can find an answer that shapes the wave, allowing better services that require fewer resources. To understand how to do this, we need to understand how technologies shape waves of change.

When new technologies come along, they are enhancers, adopted because they make it easier for us to do certain kinds of work. But new technologies also disrupt, by making alternate business models possible, and erode, by eliminating the ‘economic niches’ our organisations occupy in the economic ecosystem. A well-known example is how the internet allowed Amazon to use a new business model (online book sales) to disrupt traditional booksellers, and eventually erode the economic niche they inhabit. Governments have always stood aloof from these shifts, imagining that their ‘business’ was not susceptible to these kinds of change waves.

This is no longer true. Financial pressures are forcing governments to re-evaluate how they do their business, what role the private sector can play, and how new business models and technologies could lead to significantly smaller government which can deliver substantially better services to ‘clients’. It’s critical that the public sector engages constructively with this challenge, and seizes the opportunity to ‘shape the wave’ so that it’s a barrel, rather than a clamshell.

Put another way, the public service has to reinvent itself. This is more complex than simply adopting a new technology or changing business processes, requiring ‘deep changes’ such as shifts to organisational culture, systems, and business models. At NICTA we have been developing a toolset and methodology to help organisations undertake these changes in a holistic and systemic manner. We have built on commonly used tools, such as the Business Model Canvas, and approaches to categorising organisational culture from firms such as Human Synergistics.

At the heart of our approach are seven simple questions (why, who where, what, how, when and how much). Each question shines a light on a ‘conceptual slice’ of the organisation.

For example:

•             The ‘why’ question is about an organisation’s reason for existence: long-term purpose, mission, and value proposition to partners/customers. Reinventing the public service requires new answers to these questions.

•             The ‘how’ question is about how the organisation delivers its services – everything from governance and process through structures, data that needs to be collected and engagement (both inside and outside the organisation). The public service in future will require differently-shaped answers to the how questions.

•             The ‘what’ question is about the services (including products) and activities under taken by the organisation. Again, these are likely to shift.

•             The ‘who’ question is about externals – customers and partners – and internals – what kinds of people does the organisation need, with what skills, and expectations of behaviours, driven by organisational values. While the externals are not going to change, the way government engages with them, the things government delivers as opposed to those delivered by private intermediaries, and the capabilities of public service staff will all be different.

All seven questions and their areas of focus are shown in the accompanying diagram. Taken together, the responses to the seven questions create a ‘map’ of an organisation. These answers can be current (‘as we are now’) or future oriented (‘as we want to become’). The parts of the map tend to be tightly intertwined, for example the value proposition(s) for an organisation (WHY) are intimately related to the various stakeholders in the WHO part and the networks and communications in the HOW part. Armed with these insights, an organisation constructs a roadmap for its change journey.

To illustrate, consider the following scenario involving the (fictional) Department of Government Services (DGS).

DGS delivers a mix of services to individuals, families and businesses. DGS was an early and enthusiastic adopter of new technologies, and has, over the past 20 years, build up a portfolio of in-house technologies to support service delivery. The government’s new reform agenda requires that DGS operate much more efficiently, reducing costs and delivering better services. DGS has been tasked with developing a new operating model that can achieve these goals.

Key objectives are to:

•             shift away from internal technology development to a service-based model where technology is externally sourced;

•             outsource service delivery to reduce costs and improve services. DGS’s ‘interface’ with its traditional clients is therefore changing: Many of DGS’s services will now be delivered by private sector intermediaries. DGS’s role is therefore much more about ‘back office’ operations, policy settings, data collection, reporting and ensuring compliance with service standards. Working with NICTA, DGS goes through a workshop-based series of activities that allow them to achieve clarity around, for example:

•             Purpose, Mission and Value Proposition: By focusing on the ‘why’ questions, DGS develops an understanding of their purpose independent of particular technology or delivery models. A clear value proposition for DGS in this new world order emerges.

•             Service mix: Focusing on the ‘what’ questions, DGS gains clarity into its future service and activity mix to ensure that intermediaries are properly supported. A clear link back to the value proposition is captured. DGS also identifies a number of analytics that can be used in future to track how the intermediaries are performing in their new service delivery roles.

•             How: The ‘how’ questions allow DGS to work through issues around governance, processes, technologies, structure, data collection and engagement. The models determined here are very different to the traditional way that DHS operates, because of the changes to technologies, and service outsourcing. Similarly, the data collection requirements are changed to reflect the information needed to monitor new intermediaries and support new performance analytics.

•             Who: The ‘who’ questions allow DGS to work through issues around partners and clients/customers: partition these into segments, and decide on channels and relationship management strategies for each. The ‘who’ questions also allow DGS to articulate its new workforce requirements, including skills, roles and expectations around service delivery behaviours. The end result is a new departmental design that meets Government objectives, and has given staff the opportunity for deep input (and therefore buy-in) into new operating methods. Over the next year or so, several follow-up activities will be held to ensure that the wave is holding its shape (ie, that new approaches are bedding down).

Reflection: The power of this approach comes from the way the methodology and toolset allow the construction of a multi-faceted view of an organisation, where the tools allow the relationships between the various facets to be captured explicitly. It’s far easier to reason about change in organisations when such a model is available, as the consequences of any particular change can be worked through, and potential opportunities provided by new technologies can be more clearly understood.

NICTA has applied this approach to a number of organisations, including government departments, ASX-listed companies, volunteer organisations and universities. If you think this might be able to help your organisation, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

NICTA ( is Australia’s ICT Research and Development Centre of Excellence, with 700 researchers supported by core funding from the Commonwealth Department of Communications and the Australian Research Council, and supplementary funding from state governments, industry and university partners.

Professor Simon Kaplan is Director, Skills and Industry Transformation Director, Queensland Research Laboratory NICTA. He can be contacted at

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