Enhancing Citizen Experience with Cross-Agency Collaboration

Focusing on the problem and not just on the solution

When the internet was first a nascent technology, it was clear to most observers that the opportunities that it presented would be countless. These days, with the internet, WiFi, Bluetooth and all its associated platforms, as well as the devices they run on, those possibilities have largely been realized, but as such, it is unclear what the next big thing will be or where energies and efforts should be focused. For large corporations like Sasktel – which is a century-old, crown-owned telecommunications firm – now is the time to slightly change direction. Nathan Wilson, the Director of Innovation & Collaboration in the Business Solutions unit, says that as opposed to having five year strategic plans, now is the time that we all need to become learning organizations. 

At Sasktel, this mind-set change meant that they created an innovation and collaboration team. Noting that some silos will always exist in large companies, the idea was to connect the silos and to talk with end customers. In just 18 months, more than 4,000 people have engaged with the collaboration center, including customers, ministries and tech companies. The innovative part of the center is that Sasktel comes to it with no end solution in mind. Our goal is just to talk about the problems that people are having and to learn about what they are doing. When strategic connections are made, serendipity happens. This is both true for the people using the services, but also for the company itself. In recent times, Sasktel has become more agile and able to adjust our approach to be fit-for-purpose.

Overall, there has been a realization that the goal of a large telco should be to to help uplift and amplify other Saskatchewan start-ups and technology companies, and not to compete with them or squash them. For instance, if there is an issue that a Saskatchewan company is having but there is a solution available elsewhere, be it in other parts of North America or further afield, it is incumbent on Sasktel to bring that solution to the company. That way all Saskatchewan companies can be uplifted together. So implementing the design philosophy is a big part of that. This means listening to and understanding the problem of the customer or company and not starting with a tech solution. We won’t design anything unless we get a chance to spend time with the end users. 

Ensuring the solution is fit-for-purpose 

Sometimes the solution might not be a technology solution at all, or it might be different to what was initially proposed. So a phased approach is necessary. This makes sense because at the beginning is when you know the least. As knowledge increases, a solution or a pathway towards a solution starts to form. This also makes sense because at the beginning, even the customer or user might not quite know what they need. The classic example relates to the design of a car.[1] If you think you know what is needed at the beginning, then there will be nothing usable until the final stage because that is what was envisaged. In some determined cases that may be fine. But often by the time you roll it out and after spending a lot of time and money, maybe you realize you needed a truck and not a car, but it’s too late. The other approach is to start with a small, minimum product and then to build it up until it meets the requirements. The initial small vehicle – a skateboard in the classic example – is not going to set anybody’s world on fire, but it delivers value rapidly, and it can be done for low cost. 

When using the minimum viable product design approach, each iteration is built on and informed by the last, so you’re delivering value sooner throughout the whole lifecycle of the evolution, and there’s constant feedback so that you’re really limiting your risk. Nathan Wilson, Director of Innovation & Collaboration, Business Solutions, Sasktel

In this way of designing, the proof of concept stage is the most critical. Ultimately, what really costs money is doing things to production and scale. In the proof of concept stage, it is not done using the same quality materials as the final product, and it is not to scale. But it is something tangible in order to get real customer feedback, and it can be produced quickly. This then leads to a soft launch, with three customers for instance, rather than rolling it out to thousands, and therefore still gaining customer feedback. The real beauty of this approach is that some ideas will fail, but that’s okay. It is much better spending a little bit of money to find out what not to do, or how not to do it. 

Identifying common themes and common solutions

This approach – where Sasktel doesn’t come with a solution but spends time with the customers – has been used to great affect with municipalities. After working with many of them, some common themes surfaced. Then once they were analyzed, it became clear that they were common for most government agencies and indeed for most small or medium businesses. For instance, knowing where to spend their limited resources, knowing how to deal with data ownership and privacy, managing staff capacity and turnover, and working with technology, skills gaps and analytics, were some of the main issues for almost everyone. 

After some time, it emerged that the solution for most of these issues comes from the DNA of an organization – the devices, networks, analytics and/or applications. Rather than just focusing on one problem or one element of the solution, it is important to think of it as one piece of a broader ecosystem. That way multiple issues can be handled simultaneously and that way if one company or municipality has a particular tech problem, others can join them in finding a solution that works for all of them. This has become so important, that if an organization doesn’t see the benefits of the common ecosystem, we won’t work with them. Yet at the same time, it is never about finding one solution that fits all. It is about customizing solutions that are scalable across the ecosystem, so that each new iteration has exponential benefits as you continue to gather data in  one common place, building on an overarching ecosystem. As part of that, sovereignty of data is critical. As the network owner, Sasktel is the custodian of the data, but each agency is able to own their data and have access to utilize it.

This common solution – which is not for every problem – needs to have interoperable systems. For instance, before any municipality or other agency decides to roll out a tech solution of any sort, they should see what the other agencies around them are doing. They often think they are making their lives easier, but what they are really doing is increasing the complexity with all of these different siloed solutions. Having interoperability is beneficial to the agencies, but importantly to the customers too. If they move to a different area for instance, they won’t have to learn a new end user system. It will be the same customer interface as the one they were used to. 

Operating in this way, with a common ecosystem and a problem focused design approach, has allowed Sasktel to branch out into to new directions whilst bringing disparate agencies together. For instance, we are now delivering very robust asset management programs and geospatial integration to municipalities and indigenous communities, and we're connecting an entire array of devices, from building and water monitoring, to vehicle and asset tracking, and cameras. We are also working in agriculture and are partnering with universities. Ultimately the goal is to make Saskatchewan the best place to learn, innovate and expand, and to do so within “a safe-to-learn environment with appropriate constraints but also with the freedom to develop and grow.

Featured speaker:  

  • Nathan Wilson, Director of Innovation & Collaboration, Business Solutions, Sasktel
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