by Divina Paredes

Chris Buxton of Stats NZ: What ‘digital first’ means for today’s business leaders

Oct 22, 2018
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Invest in people and in culture. That way, you can have an organisation that can adapt and change for the future Chris Buxton, Stats NZ

Chris Buxton chooses to skip the usual slides on Uber, AirBnB, and Tesla when he talks about being ‘digital first’.

“Digital first is a philosophy,” says Buxton, chief digital officer at Stats NZ. “It is a new way of thinking and working.”

It involves change, which all organisations are familiar with, he says.

In fact, at a recent CIO and Computerworld breakfast forum where he expounded on what ‘digital first means for today’s business leaders’, he started with a quote from Isaac Asimov, the biochemistry professor and science fiction writer (1920-1992):

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will behellip;

…This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking.”

This quote is probably more relevant today than it has been, says Buxton.

“We have seen the pace of change and it is constantly growing.”

This change is reflected on the the generations now evident in workplaces.

Everybody talks about the ‘digital natives’ but he points out there are now five working generations.

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Each generation, he explains, is comparable to technology shifts.

As a public sector organisation, we have got to service all those generations, declares Buxton. Meanwhile, there is this ongoing change around technology.

Being digital first in this case, however, is not about using technology to transform the web experience, or to focus on digital natives.

“It is a general philosophy around change, the way you operate as an organisation, and the way you prepare for the future.”

When business leaders think about what they need to be a digital first organisation, it is not about the next big platform, the technology solution, he stresses.

“It is actually the right mindset and adaptability of the organisation to be able to respond to change and the changing needs of the customers.”

According to Buxton, this means investing in people and in culture. “That way, you can have an organisation that can adapt and change for the future.”

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Part of digital is bringing everybody along in the journey, making sure the entire workforce is part of that transformation activity Chris Buxton, Stats NZ

Being digital first supports this dynamic environment by providing a framework for how modern organisations need to evolve their cultures, evaluate strategy, organise their teams, create internal processes, and support these activities with flexible, innovative technology, he explains.

“If we, as leaders in the technology space are focused on products, the next widget, the next shiny thing, we ourselves are not being digital first in our mindset and our staff. Our processes and projects will reflect that as well.”

@ the CIO and Computerworld forum in Wellington

The human side of digital transformation

With this, he busts a few myths on being ‘digital first’.

“All I need is an idea, or getting a bunch of clever people in the room, is one.”

He says there are plenty of ideas on being digital first. The really big challenge is the change required to make better use of the change opportunity.

For instance, when an organisation runs hackathons, Buxton asks, how would you bring the projects created during these events back to the organisation?

“How do you overcome the organisational immune system that is built to prevent any change from actually interfering with the processes?”

Another myth is to get ‘digital natives’ in the room as they are the ones needed for digital transformation.

Nonetheless, as he pointed earlier, there are now multiple generations in the workforce.

“A lot of those ideas will be coming from people who are doing the process for a number of years,” notes Buxton.

“Part of digital is bringing everybody along in the journey, making sure the entire workforce is part of that transformation activity,” he says.

“By always focusing on the same core group of digital natives, we actually alienate the rest of the workforce and that reinforces the organisational immune system, because they are the ones that are going to resist that change. They are being ostracised from the process.”

Stats NZ chief digital officer Chris Buxton: ‘It takes time and effort to be able to continuously improve, so our leadership role is to create that environment and encourage and support that continuous improvement mentality, and support our staff to continue that activity’

The other myth is that in the course of being digital first, the CIO and the IT group are irrelevant.

“Actually, now, your technologists are really, really important people and you have to bring them into the journey, as well,” states Buxton.

“They are the ones that actually have knowledge and they are the ones that can help you bring along the generations in the workforce to have a better understanding of what digital means for the organisation.”

He adds that, “They are your evangelists if you bring them along on the journey.”

According to Buxton, being digital first is about the customer, but it is also about making a better life for the workforce. This will improve their engagement with the customer and lift productivity.

He says the shift away from the analogue operating model calls for new leadership styles.

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As the change leader, it is important to become the role model and to set an example, he declares.

These include being a lifelong learner, gaining the knowledge needed for change, creating an environment of trust and respect through transparency, and acting with integrity.

Buxton cites the case of a person who implemented rapid change for the wrong reasons. It was resolved, but the organisation wanted an analysis of what went wrong.

In the new operating model, he explains that the approach is to look at what went wrong, and what the organisation can learn from it. What can be done differently the next time?

“This leadership approach comes from the top and the way we behave will really shape the change from our staff,” he says.“Nobody is going to be agile, if we, as leaders, do not act agile.”

It is also important for leader to give a clear vision and direction for the organisation as they move towards the new business model.

“When you look at all those big innovative companies, the differentiator is there is the big clear direction from their leadership,” he states. “You need leaders to have the time and attention to give that vision to their staff.”

The concept of continuous improvement is not a free activity, he notes.

“It takes time and effort to be able to continuously improve, so our leadership role is to create that environment and encourage and support that continuous improvement mentality, and support our staff to continue that activity.”

From democracy to sociocracy

Buxton discusses the concept of sociocracy or dynamic governance.

The social aspects of decision making used to be called democracy, he points out.

Sociocracy is different, because it draws on the collective intelligence of the team.

It facilitates the development of strategies that are “good enough for now” and “safe enough to try,” and fosters accountability and a sense of engagement.

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He also espouses the concept of ‘working out loud’, where the group explores different ways of communication, like Yammer.

“It gives you a different avenue for people just to talk about anything they are working on. You are starting to move from ‘what is in it for me’ conversation to ‘what is in it for everybody’,” he says.

From here, the organisation starts to get collaboration, teamwork, and different things going as they work to become digital first.

He ends with this quote from Kay Boycott, chief executive of Asthma UK:

“Having a digital strategy will soon look as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy.”

In pictures: ‘Digital now, digital savvy’ breakfast forum in Wellington

Stats NZ chief digital officer Chris Buxton spoke at the CIO and Computerworld #digitalnowdigitalsavvy breakfast forum in Wellington, held in conjunction with Zoho (Photos by Brooke Woollett)