Tech 100: Technology is the easy part. Mindset, culture and leadership are real hurdles

Written by Nicola Graham on 30 January 2017 in Comment

Nicola Graham, head of ICT at Aberdeenshire Council, on how digital transformation means making a difference

Nicola Graham - credit Aberdeenshire Council

It was perhaps when my teenage son returned home and could not stop talking about how the new technology at his school was going to make doing his schoolwork “amazing” that I realised what making a difference really means.

Being a lively and curious 14-year-old, he is arguably a natural with tech and more scrutinising of it as a result – certainly more so than is typical of my generation. And in his excitement I couldn’t help but smile. Not only at his enthusiasm but at the irony of how his mum, in the job he describes as “boring”, helped bring about that new school technology.

Of course, I can’t and won’t take full credit for this story: I work with a fantastic ICT team who have transformed this school’s technology. And no, we don’t save lives – I’m not a brain surgeon and I’m not a miracle worker. But every day, I strive to make a difference to public life through my role at Aberdeenshire Council as head of ICT.

It is this opportunity to make a difference that drives so many people who work in the public sector, whether in social care, planning or, like me, ICT. And it is why I left the private sector some years back: the choice between making a difference to communities or making money for companies was a no-brainer.

So what does making a difference mean in local government ICT? For me, the technology is the easy part. It’s mindset, culture and leadership that are the real hurdles.

Powering through those hurdles requires clear focus, grit and resilience. And it calls for new thinking. For me, I’m a strong believer in ICT being a means to an end rather than a solution on its own. After all, in my son’s case the technology is intended to better help him with his schoolwork but it’s not going to do the work for him.

Treating technology as a tool for achieving something far bigger and greater is a common theme outside of my day job. It is inherent to my role as vice-president of Socitm – a professional association for people who work in public sector ICT and digital roles.

Through Socitm and its members I’ve seen an inspiring ethos where technology is just one part of the change. Some might say it is a radical stance and it certainly transcends the ICT function of the past, but it’s not without solid foundation. Followers of Tech 100 will have no doubt met the concept of digital transformation so I’m not going to expand further, other than urge you to read Socitm’s refreshing take on digital transformation.

A big part of digital transformation is leadership. Distinct from management’s role of making things happen, leadership sees the things that need to happen. They are the visionaries who dare to be different in order to do better. And when we look to develop new strategies for the public from the ground up, leaders are the people to steer the way from the top down. 

Along with Socitm I am far from alone in spearheading the digital transformation and leadership agenda. In Scotland, last autumn saw the launch of the local government digital office, which unites 27 of our local authorities under one digital transformation umbrella.

I’ve already heard how it’s bringing councils together to share the fantastic innovations they’ve achieved individually, how it’s working to simplify so many processes, and most of all how it’s fostering a new kind of camaraderie. These things are not only vital - they’re the ray of light through the grey climate of austerity we know so well.

It’s still early in 2017 but there’s so much to get stuck into in the coming months. And at the risk of realising I’m no longer a size eight, 21-year-old go-getter, when I look back to 1998 and the start of my public sector career I see a few constants.

One of those constants is challenge but another is the immense reward of making a difference. I consider it not only an opportunity but a duty. And a duty that today means one thing: digital transformation.

Nicola Graham is the head of ICT at Aberdeenshire Council where she has worked since December 2012. She is also one of the three vice-presidents at Socitm, a professional association for ICT and digital professionals who work in local government and public sector.

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