“Busting silos”- What’s needed to navigate collective action in the digital age

Legitimate yet flexible design features and multifaceted leadership are the way forward.

Collaboration has widely been seen as a panacea for driving the digital transformation and generating improvements of all kinds. In recent years, major consultancies have written headlines such as "Driving a digital transformation right now? Try this: cross-functional collaboration." These articles have highlighted that "vision, leadership and collaboration are the key success factors for digital transformation." In particular, there is a need for “busting silos”, urging the move away from the narrow mindset that prevents organisations from collaborating in a digital age.

However, the road to establishing collaborations can be long and winding, and it, therefore, requires continuous attention and investment. Like other innovations, digitalisation projects have very specific characteristics that place special demands on collaborative work to thrive.

From a more general standpoint, innovation is always fraught with a high degree of uncertainty. It revolves around questions such as: Can it be done? Is it allowed? Do we want it, and how do we get there? On top of that, it is often embedded in a private sector environment, marked by differing interests and an initial lack of trust.

Innovation and digitalisation are likely to evoke even greater uncertainty in the public sector given its tendency towards regimentation, continuity and risk-aversion. Especially in the realm of novel ICT projects, these cultural peculiarities add to the fact that the questions "Can it be done? Is it allowed? And how do we get there?" cannot be answered conclusively.

However, if the goal is to digitally transform all areas of government, there is no way around challenging existing workflows and joining forces to standardise, integrate and streamline procedures across departmental boundaries. Therefore, collaboration must factor in uncertainty as one barrier to implementation. The question remains of how best to do this.

How to collectively realise innovative digital projects at government level?

Over the past four years, the research team at the Centre for Digital Governance, together with 11 EU university partners, has been investigating what is needed to best address these concerns, yielding improved policy design and service delivery as part of the EU-funded TROPICO project*. 

The Centre’s research team focussed on two key factors that ultimately influence the dynamics of collaboration between and within governments: the institutional design (made up of the project rules, procedures and structures) as well as the leaders managing these projects.

It became clear how important it is to keep in mind the scope and goals of collaboration when assessing digital outcomes.

Large-scale Government-to-Government (G2G) digitalisation projects, such as the Belgian Civil Register, the Estonian Employment register or the German Online Access Act (OZG), especially require intensive cooperation across several levels of government. This often entails a particularly high level of complexity, risk and power struggles due to very diverse actors and functions as well as the still limited best practices to fall back on. So what’s the role of design and leadership in effectively addressing these challenges?

In a forthcoming article, Jessica Breaugh, Maike Rackwitz, and Gerhard Hammerschmid show that design and leadership cannot be considered in isolation. Rather, it’s their interplay that provides the adequate setting for collaborative digital innovation. Which of the two dominates depends heavily on the project’s phase or maturity level.

In smaller collaborations, such as in the field of smart city networks, there is often talk of the relevance of empathic leaders to get the project off the ground and eventually give it a structured framework.

In large-scale projects, this logic seems somewhat reversed: Due to deeply entrenched bureaucratic and legal accountability rules, high initial investments and failure rates as well as the need to manage underspecified ‘big picture’ objectives, it takes well-prepared and legitimised structures that highlight quick wins to attract and retain project stakeholders. However, once the collaboration moves beyond the set-up phase, the design needs to be flexible enough in the spirit of innovation to give strategic (and empathetic) leaders the mandate to adapt it to the evolving project needs. While doing so, leaders can use different styles of leadership.

In this video, Gerhard Hammerschmid explains which styles are best suited to lead collaboration for digital transformation. Collaborative leaders are vital to create shared understandings, mobilise partners, resolve conflict and overcome resistance to change. As government organisations work in hierarchical structures, other more traditional styles are highly relevant to scale up and implement new digital solutions, because they help to gain legitimacy and promote stability, standardisation and compliance. Therefore, it’s a balance of styles that’s critical to bring about collaborative success.

With this in mind: while collaboration may not be a task that can be easily achieved, there is a lot of proven knowledge at our disposal with which we can navigate collective action in the digital age, such that the benefits ultimately outweigh the costs.

Read more about previous and upcoming findings on the TROPICO website here.

*This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 726840.