Innovation is not about being faster or cheaper, but developing and leveraging a digitally savvy workforce

Bob Leek

Bob Leek is Deputy CIO in Multnomah County near Portland, Oregon.

About a year ago, I ran across an article: “People, Not Just Machines, Will Power Digital Innovation.” (Cognizant, April 2016). I found the article fascinating because at the time, much began to be made about machines taking over jobs that humans have long done. This led me to begin to research what types of jobs would be lost, and what types of new jobs and solutions would be available to people. Jobs in manufacturing, transportation, and customer service were highlighted as at risk. And new jobs in renewable energy, programming, and cloud services were identified. And then I thought….what could all of that mean to us, here at the County? I’m glad to say the article gave me a tag line and reminded me of the following: “Thriving in this digital era of promise and uncertainty…is not some magical technology – it’s talented people”.

We here at Multnomah County are talented. Each of us has a sense of what we do, and most of us have a story we tell to our friends, family, and coworkers about why we do it. The new digital era, however, will change how we do what we do. Attracting and retaining our talented people will be different from the methods and tools that have been used in the past. Technology will matter – new technologies will change how work is organized, distributed, and completed. And each of us will have to adapt to this new reality.

The parallels from the article to our work here at the County are direct, and profound. The article found that:

  1. Digital investments are catalyzing innovation
    • The County is making investments in new applications and platforms, and leveraging its investments in cloud technologies, all while ensuring that data is protected and private.
  2. Talent shortfalls will drive the digital economy
    • The County faces a steady rate of attrition as older (and our most experienced) workers retire, and newer workers come on board expecting the availability of new tools like smartphones, tablets, and mobile applications that are easy to use and update.
  3. Linking platforms to “talent clusters” drives innovation
    • The County has opportunities to lead, not just by building net-new capabilities, but by following successful models already proven in other counties or local governments, or even in other industries.
  4. Future performance requires a bold digital reorganization
    • The County has seen the need for more cross-disciplinary teams, bringing together talent from various organizations focused on delivering valuable services to residents, especially since not one single team can provide all of the services the public needs.
  5. The workforce of the future needs a new rules engine to work
    • The County can see that analytics, big data, automation, and algorithms enhance innovation, productivity, and decision-making, freeing up more of our resources to work directly with the public

All of this leads to a conclusion: a digitally savvy workforce will benefit the County by reducing staff turnover, improving relationships with partner organizations, creating greater agility, and resulting in higher rates of innovation. We will stay ahead of the curve not by being faster or cheaper, or making willy-nilly technology investments, but by developing, tuning, and leveraging capabilities that are uniquely human. We will rely on the why each of us works here at the County to develop new how’s of doing our work. And we will build the foundations of improvements through the work of cross-functional teams to support the digital expectations of the people we serve. Look for and anticipate opportunities to participate in the new ways that we will do our what’s – delivering services to the public, by humans, who are uniquely capable of being empathetic, building relationships, and making common sense of complex situations.