Getting shared services to work

3 minute read

In my last post1 I mentioned that I was going to make a pitch about the UK Government Shared Services Strategy2 at UKGovCamp. In the end I didn’t need to pitch as @lexij got there first with a great title: The Shared Services Strategy - OMG! Let’s fix it. This post is a personal reflection on what was discussed but the raw notes from the session are also available online3.

Doing the same thing and expecting a different result

The theory that business services always get better as they get bigger is persistent but the econmies of scale have turned out to be elusive. The most recent attempt in Central Government4 has produced disappointing results5, so far, but the new strategy retains many of the same elements. Some examples that got my attention in the latest strategy were:

  • The UK Government has a lot of buying power and can effectively wield this to get good value from technology and service centre suppliers.
  • The notoriously poor user interfaces of the leading ERP systems can be addressed by bolting on a new shared front-end.
  • Limiting the technology options will help align back-office operations in spite of fragmented funding and governance.
  • Innovation in back-office services (such as automation and artificial intelligence) is unlikely to change the operating model or supplier landscape very much over 10 years.
  • Experience from industry means we can be confident this is the right direction and approach.

What evidence do we have that the new strategy will produce better results? Perhaps the assumptions behind the strategy could be made to work but there is plenty of evidence which points the other way6. What other options were considered and ruled out?

Give Digital another chance

@tomskitomski defines “Digital” as: applying the culture, practices, processes & technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations. This thinking has proven so successful that all public facing transactional services must now be developed this way7. Why not apply this approach to back-office business services? A few years ago some teams started to look at this8 and I would like to hear more about how far they got and what they discovered.

A more digital approach would come with its own set of challenges, including:

  • is this the best use of relatively scarce digital skills?
  • will the benefits be so much greater than buying complete services and systems from the market?
  • will it be any more successful if the funding and governance issues are not addressed?

I don’t think anyone promoting a more digital approach would suggest it would be an easy option but a wise response would be to proceed with caution and learn along the way - not abandon the idea altogether.

The 3rd Way

The authors of the Shared Services Strategy and the attendees at UKGovCamp are clearly approaching this from very different positions but we don’t need to stop there. As @liammax suggests we could work together to make it a success.

How can we do this in practice? Alongside the main ERP vendors the strategy includes a 3rd sponsored platform. This is intended to be “modern” and “provide a cheaper, more flexible alternative” to Oracle and SAP. Why not develop the 3rd platform using the Government Service Manual9? This might not result in a single integrated alternative to SAP and Oracle but then the choice of technology might not be the biggest obstacle in discovering and addressing the real needs. We can’t be sure that a digital 3rd platform would become a great success but there is certainly room in a programme of this scale to experiment and iterate with an approach that has proven so effective in other circumstances.


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