At SAP headquarters in Walldorf, Germany there are revolving doors. To enter a building you need to put your access card close to a card reader. Instead of the access card I use my mobile phone to open the door. Where actually it is not the phone that grants me access, but the access card I have slid into the flip case of my mobile phone. Many people spotting me operating the door with my phone approach me to ask for that access app. It always ends with good laughs when I show them the access card sticking in the phone cover and explain that no app is involved. Why am I telling you that story? And what is the connection to digitization? I think it is a good example of something that looks like an innovative digital solution, where actually it is just an obfuscation of something well known.
The same can be observed with some Public Sector organizations. For instance I am working with an agency running a huge project to digitize their vast amount of paper files by scanning these files and storing them as graphics. That process raises a couple of questions.
- How can the content of a file be accessed, e.g. for searching, automated updating, or triggering follow-up actions? Unfortunately it cannot be accessed at all. No OCR software is being used to convert the graphics into text. Not speaking of generating structured data. So it is only the picture of a piece of paper that can be displayed.
- How do case workers work with these files when it comes to updates or changes? They display the picture of a file on their screen, phone a runner, and get the paper file delivered to their office. Then they work with that paper file. Afterwards the paper file gets scanned again. And the picture is being replaced.
- Can case workers work remotely? E.g. from home? No, they can’t. Because they still need to access the paper files.
- Are the paper files being disposed? Not at all. Case workers still need these paper files to work with.
At the end of the day the management can celebrate success and can confirm digitization of their organization. Mission accomplished. A lot of time and money was spent on setting up the IT system and scanning all documents. But there was no process improvement gained. Case workers still work in the same way they did 50 years ago. Only difference is that files now can be viewed in read-only-mode at your screen. Which may help in some situations. But it is not a big leap forward.
Another example of a project which is dealing with bits and bytes but cannot be seen as real digitization is a social agency of a small island country with beautiful beaches and perfect weather all year. In the old days all processes were purely paper based. Like everywhere in the world at that time. Citizens were obliged by law to fill in any forms in handwriting. No typing (with a typewriter at that time) was allowed. Later they digitized that process by setting up an IT system and hiring two ladies who entered all data from these handwritten forms to the system. There data were processed manually and then printed. In case of data mismatches or typos the process came to a halt and waited for the applicant to complain. Even if digital electronic equipment was involved this is not digitization at all. Fortunately the story had a happy end by introducing a social protection solution (btw from SAP) and changing legislation. So nowadays citizens can submit social applications online, which then are processed automatically. In straight forward cases applicants receive an approval or a rejection online within minutes.
Allow us to gain extensive insights from these customer stories:
- Digitization is more than using software.
- Digitization can bring benefits and better services to your organization, to your citizens, and to your constituents. Do not do something you name digitization just because there’s an ongoing digitization hype.
- When digitizing a process it needs to be digital end to end. Disruptions may void all benefits.
- There may be digital equipment involved, like a mobile phone in the first example, that does not contribute to the process. Don’t let yourself get obfuscated by that.
For further information on digitization of social protection follow this link.