What is one of the most wicked problems in large organisations seriously adopting digital today? Many digital leaders would say it’s the challenge that Grey IT brings, and then some board members would turn to them and say what is Grey IT?
Digital functions the world over have adopted a multitude of phrases to describe a core issue that manifests in many ways and for many reasons. Grey IT is ultimately the organisation voting with its feet (or its projects) and buying and implementing technology without going through any digital function or digital governance. It’s a problem with its genesis in technology teams not meeting customer demands and the consumerisation of technology. There is an element of being careful what you wish for. In the 1990s technology leaders bemoaned their business functions for not being engaged in digital transformation, often the National Programme for IT and its perceived ‘failure’ within the NHS is accredited to the lack of business engagement; and now here we are a decade later complaining that the business is so engaged in digital solutions that they can deliver this stuff without digital teams getting involved.
The management training catch phrase of the 1980s, “Don’t bring my problems bring me solutions” needs to be turned on its head, when the business has an issue the ask now needs to be; “Come to me with your problem and lets together come to a solution for it.” This will be a first step to avoiding the Grey IT issue getting any worse, but once instigated the digital function now needs to be able to react to all the issues that are brought to the door, quickly, and in an agile manner that truly delivers on defined customer needs.
I propose that Grey IT is often so rife in large public-sector organisations because of two key reasons; a capacity to keep up with the now consumerised technology delivery that is possible and an often-backward view of innovation that comes from the business by digital professionals. The expectation that digital innovation can only come from those within technology rather than those at the cutting edge of business delivery has to be reconsidered by us, the digital leadership of any organisation! Sometimes the customer does truly know best!
We must combat these two root causes of this if we are to remove the negative outcomes of Grey IT’s existence. Technology outside of a decent governance capability is ultimately dangerous for business and healthcare delivery in particular. Grey IT does just that, delivers a layer of technology that does not have any governance to it. The real manifestation of Grey IT in the NHS today is often seen 12 months after the initial project go live, when the bill for the second year of the licence arrives or the need to upgrade becomes obvious and the technology professionals are called to assist. Worse still Grey IT becomes clear the day the system built, supported, procured and run outside of IT doesn’t work anymore, suddenly Grey IT falls back to its base colours, black and white, whose problem is it and who is going to fix it!
My organisation has been on the receiving end of one of the worst outcomes of Grey IT, many years ago we suffered a significant outage in the digital systems that were used in the Pathology Lab. Whilst the solution had been bought through a governed and appropriate manner it had not been taken into the technology team within the trust it had been developed, evolved and supported by keen and enthusiastic users, but a workforce that had moved on, had a higher priority (patient care) or simply had forgotten how to do stuff was left supporting a solution that was on legacy infrastructure. So when a server went pop, a disc array went AWOL and a back-up was missing disaster struck. This is all stuff the good book ITIL teaches digital professionals to avoid, but once the grey mist has descended upon it even the good book couldn’t help! All that the technology team could do in this case was take control of the recovery and work hard to ensure that the right lessons had been learnt and applied to the future.
I think we are looking at a plethora of different types of Grey IT that all need a different solution; Feral IT, Guerrilla IT, Shadow IT and traditional Grey IT.
Feral IT for me starts as a digitally led project often a collaboration, an exciting chance for the digital team and the ‘business’ to work together to come up with a solution. It gains ground as it delivers benefit but slowly drifts away from good governance, often because the project is so successful. Over time though the project will grow and its delivery focus and the team will change, as that happens the digital governance of the organisation can break down and the project is then being delivered outside the parameters of good governance.
The key to making Feral IT work is to ensure that the governance of the project is grounded in the foundations of the digital agenda, organisations are often looking for agility and a start-up culture to enable innovation to happen, but innovation becomes scalable only when a rigour of governance is applied. As digital leaders we should try to encourage the agility that this type of project culture offers, but it is also our role to ensure that the foundations of decision making and corporate risk management are clearly understood. It is tricky in a new decade where digital is a consumerised product, building an understanding of why we the digital function of an organisation needs to be continually part of the decision making in this kind of project can only be achieved with the right style of engagement, one that at least can light a candle next to the consumer style digital capability now available to everyone.
Guerrilla IT is a phrase that best describes the technology project that has been actively hidden from an organisations digital team, a project that has wilfully been created outside of governance for so many possible reasons. Guerrilla warfare was a phrase first coined in 1808 to describe the Spanish resistance to Napoleon, Guerrilla IT is an identified need that a team has understood and has been unable to get help with the delivery of, at this point the business function decides to go ‘rogue’ and deliver it anyway.
In the NHS today Guerrilla IT exists for many reasons but I would suggest the key reason is an inability to make the national solutions that have been delivered work in the way that locality needs them to. When we have Guerrilla IT projects we need to understand why they exist, much of the reason will often be traceable back to the nature of the solution being sought by the business to the problem and the digital functions inability to react in a way that achieves the desired outcome. The use of WhatsApp in the NHS is possibly the best example of a Guerrilla IT project, organisations have been saying for more than five years that this platform should not really be used inside a healthcare environment, and yet every day that I am in Leeds I see and hear of staff using it in ways we have actively said it shouldn’t be used. Why, because it achieves a need, it is easy to use and it’s a consumer product, and in reality, alternatives to its use are very new to the digital fabric of healthcare. The same could be said for ERS, there is a desperate need fro the NHS wide booking system to offer a ‘many to many’ booking capability, hospitals refer to hospitals! And yet it doesn’t and therefore department after department has its own growing digital solution to enable the digital transfer of information about patients moving from hospital to hospital, we have to fix this!
Shadow IT manifests often from the digital team, when disagreement exists in strategic direction, standards to be adopted or simply in the procurement of a system. Digital professionals can be a real pain, we all know best, we all know our subject matter and sometimes this can boil over into a Shadow IT project. A project that is delivered against the wishes of the governed decision and with an intention to compete with a decision made. Shadow IT will often be kicked off with good intentions; a project just in case the agreed and governed solution misses a deadline or as a risk mitigation to functionality delivery, but sometimes the project is started because it is a ‘pet project’ of a leader of the organisation, digital or otherwise. Shadow IT can be a useful mitigation to risk, but needs the same level of governance, risk management and rigour applied, it needs to be managed as a project that has goal of being there just in case and should not be tolerated as a vanity project because someone with the digital function is unhappy with a technology decision that has been taken.
Grey IT becomes the collective term for these issues, all shades of grey, successful in some ways in delivering user defined need but with risks to the business that need to be quantified and mitigated against. Removing Grey IT has already become one of the wicked problems, maybe we should accept that we can’t remove Grey IT from what we do, but we should look to understand where it is, why it is and what the risks are to us. There is also an element now of learning from the collective Grey IT projects and understanding better how to avoid them starting up, and that I think is about understanding the investment decisions that are required to initiate a digital project and the engagement needed to enlighten everyone in decisions being taken.
Investment and the return it brings has to be part of the equation in the answer to the ever-present Grey IT problem. Investment in infrastructure for healthcare needs to have a digital element in the same way as the investment decision would call for electricity, heating and light. In 2015 KPMG Ireland called out the need for the fourth ‘utility’ for the building of the National Children’s hospital in Dublin to be digital, it wasn’t, and we now see a furore in the media as the whole digital backbone of a brand new hospital is going over budget because its digital element was expected by decision makers to be run as a Grey IT project. Misunderstanding or on purpose I am still not sure but I do know that the digital team across the project, the ‘centre’ and the department were clear that the hospital had to be a digital hospital and yet the return on that investment was not judged to be worthwhile capturing properly and openly, IT costs money, when will we learn!
We are asked to consider the Return on Investment (ROI) that digital makes when we build a case for spend, perhaps the key to removing the plight that is Grey IT from digital health care could be to start to consider a different set of terms more strongly, what if we considered the Value on Investment (VOI) instead? Let’s not pretend anymore that investment in digital in healthcare anywhere in the world will ever return money back to anyone’s budget, capacity and demand are so ‘topsey turvey’ right now that no amount of digital innovation will return investment, what it will do though is increase efficiency to bring us closer to the demand need, increase quality to bring us closer to the required need and bring a new interest back to the daily roles to deliver a new enthusiasm for what we do. If we all consider the VOI together then just maybe no one would want to set up their own little Grey IT project anymore because we would all be heading towards the same increased value curve.
So we move from ROI to VOI and start to build the case for change in a different way, we still are missing a piece of the colourful puzzle that will be laid over the top of Grey IT though. Return on Reputation (ROR) was a phrase I first heard uttered by Ted Rubin a digital marketing expert and social media evangelist, Ted suggests that the way to building reputation is by building the network of believers and doing this by being ‘nice’. Quite an American ‘thing’ to want to do I guess but there is something in this I think. Digital functions all over the NHS have not adopted any form of ‘Del Monte’ attitude, we are quick to say no, we are quick to say get in line we have a prioritisation process you know! When we do this without listening, we do two things, we set the preference for our customers to understand that its quicker to ‘go elsewhere’ and that we are not part of the team, we are ‘another’ corporate function, maybe even an overhead, with our own benefit blocking agenda. If we adopt Ted’s principles then we should be more open to listen, more transparent in what we will do once we have listened and allow the ‘business’ to work with us to decide what to do first, second and third. The return we would all then get from this is an improvement in the reputation we have.
Grey IT is here now and no matter how big your One IT (insert other corporate programme name here!) is that you are instigating to remove it you won’t without attitude and aptitude change in the digital functions of healthcare. Change is hard to make happen but we have to make it happen, as a journey we are on not as a demand dictated to the system we can become one transformation function for the NHS.
Bring out the problems, let’s work together to create new ideas to solve them and then lets seek the right way of describing the investment and the way we are all going to deliver this together, let’s create joint solutions to problems we consider to be joint as well.
Somehow let’s make digital first be a way of working together that is about innovating for the future not simply concentrating on tomorrow.
NB If you ever see Ted Rubin on an agenda at an event you are at, go and see him speak, one of the most inspiring speakers I have ever had the joy of seeing, he changed my outlook and I still quote him years later, ‘just be nice!’