Public sector organisations are facing a multitude of new challenges and threats that are testing responses and capabilities built in a more stable world.

By Talib Sadik, interim group CEO of Denel SOC

Responding to this new reality requires ingenuity. There is a renewed imperative for successful public sector organisations to become more purpose-led, adaptive and collaborative.

Complex, disruptive change is the new constant. Take new technology and data … a powerful force for prosperity but also a force for ill in the wrong hands. It can enable everything from terrorism and financial fraud through to industrialised misinformation.

Defence, law enforcement and national security organisations are required to constantly adjust to tackle the speed and cunning of the multiple, diverse adversaries they face. Their experiences offer ideas and learnings for a wider audience.

Public sector organisations must respond to become every bit as adaptable and innovative as the challenges and threats they face. An inability to match the speed of the challenge risks our society, security and prosperity.

Time for fresh thinking

Some private sector businesses have travelled further along the road towards becoming adaptive. Tested by competitive external environments, organisations across industry have learned to evolve with speed in recent years. This capacity for change enables them to identify new trends ahead of the competition and gain a competitive advantage.

These organisations have survived by evolving their structures, systems, workforce and culture and investing in technology, to become fluid and adaptable.

Public sector organisations face many of the same obstacles these private businesses did: siloed structures, outdated technologies and limited resources. Furthermore, these organisations face stringent regulatory, legislative and security regimes, and decision-making processes unable to match the pace of external threats.

While leaders are typically aware of what needs to happen, a new approach is needed. Current operating models leave these vital organisations potentially flat-footed against the pace of the wider world and against opponents that face far fewer, or no, hurdles.

It’s hard to catch up, build and maintain an operational edge, let alone reach a position to pre-empt changes in threats and the emergence of new ones. But there is a way forward. Public sector organisations can become more purpose-led, adaptive and collaborative, unlocking the ingenuity of their people to build a more positive human future.

Organisations must do three key things to become ever more adaptive:

* Accelerate insight-led decision-making by placing people front and centre, enabling them to derive the right insight by putting data at their fingertips.

* Instil a permanent, positive restlessness by combining a stable core with small, self-organising, multiskilled teams that are free to evolve.

* Step up the pace by shortening decision-making and planning cycles from years to weeks, if not days.

There is a renewed imperative to rise to this challenge. We are witnessing the convergence of a number of trends and an exponential growth in threats. Growing global uncertainty, the growth of populism, the shift of power and the fourth industrial revolution are all having seismic implications for public sector organisations.

These trends are an opportunity for public sector organisations to closely scrutinise their future role and purpose, their ability to adapt and how they collaborate to build capabilities. The more adaptive organisations are, the more ingenuity they can unlock and the better they can respond to the challenges of an uncertain and changing environment.

A traditional approach, centred around established structures and ways of working, will no longer hold. Instead, diverse and constantly changing threats demand a hybrid approach where organisations rely on the stability of a strong strategic centre while enabling small, experimental teams to innovate.

This means significant change, not least to workforce skill sets. It calls for a diverse mix of multifunctional teams and multi potentialists able to apply a range of skill sets to the most pressing challenges. Their fluid, adaptable approach must be underpinned by a strong strategic centre that makes evidence-based decisions on resource allocation in line with the organisation’s overarching goals and ambition.

Success means nothing less than an enterprise-level transformation of analysis, knowledge management and data governance. It means empowering decision-makers at the right levels.

This process of moving away from old ways of working and embracing new ideas will create tension. Those with transferable skills and adaptive mindsets, and those able to let go of legacy approaches and help scale new ways of working, will play a central role in driving the transformation.

For most organisations the change from current ways of working to becoming adaptive will be huge and uncomfortable. This can’t happen overnight. Any attempt to achieve the transformation in a single leap will almost certainly fail. Even so, the right results are possible in a fraction of the time it can take conventional change programmes to deliver – and with much greater impact.

It will still feel uncomfortable – but in some cases discomfort will be a sign of headway. The key is to be bold, think big, start small and scale fast.

The method matters:

To help organisations adjust to this new reality and make transformation more effective organisations must:

* Be bold – set an ambition to transform the whole system, including people, processes, infrastructure, technology, and facilities.

* Think big – define what value looks like, how to get there, and how and when value will be realised along the way. Create a road map for the transformation. And adopt a model for delivering it that lets organisation adapt to change as they go.

* Start small – build commitment to becoming an adaptive organisation. Learn where other transformations have failed. And pilot and prototype new ways of working, getting value early and using it to build momentum, motivation, and buy-in.

* Scale fast – take these methods and results and replicate them across the organisation.