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Digitalization in T&T

Digitalization in T&T

In the recent budget, the government spoke about digitization and digitalization. Most of us know from the Roadmap to Recovery document and from many other documents and speeches that our government has made a clear commitment to digitization and the transition to becoming a digital nation. But what does it all mean and what does this new term digitalization signify?

Let’s start with definitions of the two terms, digitization and digitalization – Digitization is the process of converting information into a digital (i.e. computer-readable) format, in which the information is organized into bits whereas Digitalization is the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business.

I presume in this case we intend to treat with public sector processes as the equivalent of the business model in the definition. By using the term digitalization, the government is heralding the use of digital technologies to change its processes and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities; it is the process of moving to a digital business.

I don’t imagine that the reference to providing new revenue and value-producing opportunities will match exactly with the business sector but I do expect that there must be a new focus on measurable and clearly defined metrics appropriate to the effective running of public sector agencies and enterprises. Without this, we will have digitalization in name only. I can only assume that they used the term very deliberately and intend to live up to its promise.

The two are interlinked and interdependent. Data must first be digitized in order for it to be used in digitalization. In many instances the two actions are attempted simultaneously. Two examples within our public sector are IHRIS (Integrated Human Resource Information System) and the Licensing Department. In both cases data had first to be digitized the used to improve processes.

In the case of IHRIS, my understanding is that the project has been bedeviled by a number of problems not least the difficulty of digitizing existing data. With licensing it appears to have gone relatively smoothly after some initial hiccups. The lesson is that the digitization process is a necessary foundation for the eventual digitalization.

That is why a host of major corporations and government agencies internationally came to the realization that the digitization process ought to be given a higher prominence and implemented even before deciding on digitalization options. In my own experience, that approach has proven very successful at a host of clients including National Westminster Bank, G E Capital and Welsh Water. Invariably, the digitization processes when treated as stand alone exercises facilitated smoother implementation of the eventual digitization.

What we found was that digitization was fraught with difficulty in even the most efficient enterprises and that addressing these problems in advance greatly facilitated digitalization. Some common problems were missing data, incorrectly entered data, data integrity issues and the sheer volume which was often overlooked in the rush to digitalization.

The first step towards successful digitalization in our experience was therefore digitization of existing data where possible. You get the opportunity to iron out the kinks in advance. You document the data that is currently gathered and where possible you define the additional data that will be required by the improved processes facilitated by digitalization.

In addition to the aforementioned benefits of digitization and the attendant mapping of existing and proposed datasets, we found that some extremely valuable outcomes were achieved. The effect was that digitization brought forth benefits separate and apart from the digitalization.

Digitized data opens up many possibilities for immediate benefit or quick wins. Think for example about the attendance or any other data about employee performance across a whole host of agencies under one Ministry. Simply by digitizing that data, the Ministry is able to generate really informative aggregate reports. Aggregate reports produce averages, totals and other summary statistics that are invaluable for management purposes.

Digitized data therefore delivers many of the expected benefits of digitalization i.e. demonstrably improved processes. It could be argued that the aggregate reports are in fact a form of digitalization as it requires the development and deployment of code libraries that perform the aggregation. It means that digitization undertaken in a preemptive manner can usually justify its cost when viewed in isolation. A well performed data documentation and digitization reaps both immediate and longer term benefits.

That is why I am advocating strongly for a world class digitization process to be undertaken without delay. An understanding of the size and complexity of the public service leads to the conclusion that such an exercise would require thousands of persons functioning in every aspect of data management. It opens up the opportunity to recruit and train all those persons in these new skills.

We could easily employ every person that we currently have with any of the data management skills that we need. In fact we should be actively seeking to embrace all such persons and also encouraging others to acquire the necessary skills. What better way to persuade our citizens to pursue these highly desired skills than to show them that we will have need for them for the next five years at least.

Like Estonia we can take a lead in pushing the digitization boundaries and deriving long term commercial benefit from so doing. There was a time when a lot of money could be made from relatively low level data entry. Digitization in preparation for digitalization is a new and exciting frontier in the global public sector. We should use our own experience to hone our skills and develop expertise that the world will want a share of.

I will close with another important lesson from my private sector experience that will impact us in T&T and which leads us to collaborate more with our Caribbean neighbours. It is the issue of confidentiality. We had built a data entry and validation system for a major bank in the UK. When we were about to begin the data entry exercise, a concern was raised about the likelihood of data entry personnel stumbling upon financial data relating to persons the personnel might know, or even persons in the public eye.

The solution was to move the data entry exercise to another European country. We are certain to face a similar challenge here, made worse by our relatively small size and the fact that any two persons selected randomly are likely to have some connection whether by family, school, church etc. even if indirectly through two or more linkages.

We should give great consideration to collaborating with one or more other islands with regard to reciprocal arrangements. Working with other islands also opens the door to the possibility of export markets for our expertise and generates synergies between the islands.

Digitization is a process that will take many years and will require an enormous range of skills. If we hope to see significant results over the next five years, and I do, then we must understand and appreciate the scale of the task. We must recognize the need to start our data documentation and digitization now. and we absolutely must think big and plan big because this is probably the largest project undertaken by the nation in decades. I cannot wait.

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