One large agency’s hybrid digital platform helped it overcome challenges related to its structure, risk aversion and culture.
Hybrid digital platforms may help public-sector organizations be more innovative, a new study finds.
That’s because they can help government agencies achieve the organizational ambidexterity—the ability to be efficient today but also adaptive to the future—they need to overcome their unique limitations, according to “A platform-based approach to ambidexterity for innovation: An empirical investigation in the public sector.” Those challenges are being stymied in the public sector by a federated structure in which one unit oversees others that operate independently from one another, greater risk aversion and a perception that regulations compliance trumps innovation.
The research team arrived at these conclusions after examining an unnamed government agency with 20 component units. They interviewed employees and studied publicly available documents to understand how each balanced both “exploitative innovations, which improve existing competencies, and exploratory innovations, which create new products, services and processes,” according to the report.
“You’re basically balancing conflicting approaches, which is what ambidexterity is all about and making a platform which can serve both purposes in a loosely coupled fashion,” Sumantra Sarkar said of the innovation types. One of the report’s authors, he is also an associate professor of management information systems at Binghamton University’s School of Management.
The first step, Sarkar said, is to look at applications across units that serve similar purposes and talk to the people who use them to see how they can be brought into one platform. The study defines platforms as “sets of core assets that meet the common needs of a core group of customers while affording flexibility, adaptability and extensibility to meet unique needs.”
Platforms can be external, such as Google’s, which lets anyone develop an Android application, or internal, such as a population database that multiple agencies might use in different ways, such as for taxes or health care. But the study found that the best approach may be a hybrid platform, which it says includes “core features that are needed by a variety of platform users—in this case, the loosely connected federated members—and provide flexibility for the platform users to build customized solutions on top of the platform.”
The researchers found that in addition to supporting exploitative and exploratory innovations, the platform-based approach helped the agency they studied achieve cost-effectiveness, impact and scalability. One example the study cites is a cloud-based application development platform that allows department units to use plug-and-play features and tools that they can tweak based on their needs.
Additionally, when the agency’s enterprise data architecture team looked to address data quality problems that arose in creating a single view of all the units’ data, they developed an application lifecycle management shared service platform that all units could share.
What’s more, the organization built an enterprise management support system that helped with back-office functions, such as incident reporting and Freedom of Information Act requests.
“This system was designed to meet common requirements across units and to implement exploitative innovations. This reduced the perceived risks of the units in adopting innovation,” the study states. In fact, 80% of the requirements in this system are common across all federated units, it adds.
The agency also applied agile development to its initiatives. As a result, one project took 18 months to release, with subsequent releases coming at six-month intervals. To manage that, the agency set up a team to support agile development processes.
Ultimately, the process for determining a platform approach doesn’t change, whether the agency is large with a workforce of 250,000 and an annual operating budget of $40 billion, as the study subject was, or a small local one, Sarkar said.
“First is we have to agree that you have to innovate,” he said. “You cannot keep on doing the things that you’ve been doing for so long, for 30, 40 years and maybe they’re obsolete now – that software will not serve your purposes, will not scale up in this tool, in this big data environment today.”
Next, leaders must understand what the applications in question do. “Talk to everybody,” Sarkar said. “This was a very interesting case study [in] that they started talking to people that made small project teams and they started doing prototypes. So it was more of a bottoms-up approach, rather than a top-down approach,” he said. “In this sort of no-control environment, there’s nothing that’s a top-down approach at all; nobody’s going to listen to you. So, it’s better to get the buy-in from [the] bottom and then go up … which made it a success.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.