Matt Lane




When being in a council “digital” team can feel like you’re in a Kafka novel

Matt LaneMatt Lane

This was originally a presentation at the 2018 ALGIM Spring Conference

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.”

Kafka’s Metamorphosis

Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a story of identity crisis. It opens with Gregor Samsa waking up to find he is no longer the thing he thought he was (a human – a travelling salesman) but is in fact a giant bug.

Gregor’s problem is partially that he has woken up as a giant bug, but mainly that he doesn’t see himself as a giant bug. He, and his family, have expectations of him which preclude him being a giant bug. If he were ok with him being a giant bug, there would be no crisis.

An identity crisis has two essential prerequisites:

  1. an assumption about reality and 
  2. evidence contradicting that point.

We recognise the that feeling in our stomachs when this happens.

What (who) is “digital”?

involving or relating to the use of computer technology

Inside a council, almost all teams are nouns: property, IT, resource consents, building consents, contact centre, communications, rates. This puts a “digital” team in an unusual situation. An adjective implies a noun. Things that can be digital which maybe are not yet digital.

What do people mean when they say “digital” and what do they expect when they hear “digital”?

From my experience, no two people mean the same thing. Here is a list of things people might mean (the “connotations” of digital):

With so many possible interpretations we have fertile ground for misunderstandings.

Definition of “digital” from across the web

Automated business processes

“Digital is the re-imagining of business processes to be by default a fully online, fully automated process from end-user interaction to back office processing, with no need for human intervention.”

A mindset change

“Digital is being more agile; putting users first; starting small and iterating from there, based on user research

changing how we think, act and behave”

“Digital isn’t a list of things to do. It’s about how you think, how you behave, what you value, and what drives decisions in your organisation”

The connected consumer

“Digital is the convergence of social media, mobile and the web. Together these have created a new kind of connected consumer.”

The word is ambiguous and no good

For some executives, digital is about technology. For others, digital is a new way of engaging with customers. And for others still, it represents an entirely new way of doing business. None of these definitions is necessarily incorrect. But such diverse perspectives often trip up leadership teams because they reflect a lack of alignment and common vision about where the business needs to go.

“Digital sucks. As a word, it means too many different things to too many people…”

The word is specific and good

“The important thing here is that ‘digital’ means something specific, and reasonably clear. It’s not an opaque buzzword.”

With all of these contrary definitions, the word “digital” starts to look frail under the weight of expectation. But while the word remains in common use, we need a working definition.

The best definition I have seen:

This definition resonates with me. I almost feel it in my bones.

Fleshing out what it means to be “digital”

So as above:

Digital is applying the culture(1), practices(2), processes(3) & technologies(4) of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.


We can start to make an educated guess as to what these might consist of.

The culture of the Internet-era

The practices of the Internet-era

The processes of the Internet-era

The technologies of the Internet-era

BUT by rote repeating any of these (rituals) without understanding why you are doing them is simply “cargo cult” digital

cargo cult is a belief system in a relatively undeveloped society in which adherents practice superstitious rituals hoping to bring modern goods supplied by a more technologically advanced society.

If we are aiming for digital transformation there is a high risk that we cannot distinguish between the observable and the unobservable – we will mimic the processes and rituals we see in successful organisations, but we have no good way to tell what is cause and what is effect

Queue the existential crisis

It is not uncommon to see teams adopting missions and visions that, from an outsiders perspective, may seem overly ambitious and grandiose to the point of non-sensical. This is easier to see in others and sometimes is most stark when comparing a team’s self-perception versus the way the rest of the world actually interacts with them.

“We are applying the culture, processes, business models and technologies of the internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations”

Your heroic customer-centred Council Digital team

“…..ah OK…. sounds great…. so can you upload this PDF to the website? There is a press release going out this afternoon”

A busy Council officer rushing for a deadline

From the sublime to the mundane: no matter who we wish we were, we exist within the context and expectations of the organisations we are in.

Matt Lane

banging rocks together