The People Side of IT Modernization

Virtually all federal agencies to one degree or another are undergoing transformative shifts to meet the demands of a changing digital landscape. Depending on the agency, legacy processes, systems, or applications may be modernized either individually or collectively. While many organizations are eager to innovate and modernize, they may not have taken the steps to strategically prioritize their efforts. For organizations that do take the time to strategically identify their challenges – and to develop a roadmap whose milestones are marked by the furthering of mission – IT modernization can be more than just tech assessments and builds.  It can become an opportunity for transformation and organizational excellence.

An effective modernization plan, then, considers communication, change management, and stakeholder alignment around organizational requirements. This point is underscored by Avi Bender, former CTO of the US Census Bureau and current Director of the National Technical Information Service (NTIS, at the Department of Commerce), which works to find innovative ways to expand access to the government’s data resources. According to Bender, challenges often are tied to technology, but sometimes they are rooted in organizational or process issues.

“There are systemic issues in the way we manage IT in most government agencies,” he explains. “What’s always been missing is having the right conversation with the private sector and the right people within the government.” For example, working with a contractor helped NTIS to “better see the big picture and think through our business model of who we are and what we do. This produced stronger mission results because we were better aligned with our stakeholder’s needs.”

In short, according to Bender, “The biggest issue with IT modernization and transformation is not having the right conversations with the right people.” In other words, the people part of transformation, which includes employees whose opinions are sought and experience considered, leaders who manage rather than impose change, and stakeholders who are committed to mission enhancement through modernization.

Employees can’t be overlooked or underestimated.

The people part of change is more art than science, and a new organizational chart is not enough to get everyone on board.  When Bender became NTIS Director, he needed to transform the organization and modernize its mission simultaneously - a “tremendous challenge” he compared to “maintaining an airplane while it’s flying.” While newer or younger hires come on board expecting change, this may be harder for more experienced staff. These subject-matter experts (SMEs) have a different kind of power in the organization, and their knowledge of the agency and its systems must be respected and honored.

Organizations also have to accept that sometimes buy-in will not succeed.  Individuals whose careers were defined by a single mission-critical application may struggle, but IT modernization initiatives must be mission-focused and not personality-driven.  Instead, agencies may find success by leveraging those with 20-or 30-year careers, positioning them as mentors or SMEs in the process. Highly-skilled and experienced employees matched with tech-savvy staff who enthusiastically embrace the new approach make for diverse teams that manage the course of change together.   

According to Bender, “subject matter experts and employees who understand the mission and business requirements of their agency will be instrumental in helping their agency harness the power of these new technologies.” But, he warns, “regardless of the tenure of the workforce, the approach of ‘I’ve always done it this way’ should not be allowed to constrain innovation.”  

When leaders manage change, mission and culture follow.

Introducing and implementing change – especially when it comes to something as foundational as mission and as functional as technology – is difficult. Whether the one to first attempt change (and absorb the shock of growing) or the next person up (with the luxury of building on that initial progress), a change leader needs broad support from an internal group of stakeholders to own and drive transformation. Through conversation rather than by edict or mandate, effective leaders elicit buy in and adoption.

“Dictating culture change is a recipe for failure,” Bender says. Instead, leaders must introduce a catalyst for change – in this case, modernized technology – and rally colleagues to adopt new ways of working.  A change in the organization’s culture and the furtherance of mission become natural byproducts.  Leaders can motivate others toward change, Bender believes, but will fail if they think they can singlehandedly change culture. 

The best way to get alignment among stakeholders is to engage them in the IT modernization discussion as early as possible. It’s best to include key stakeholders in upfront strategic discussions where they play a role in the definition of the desired end game.  A complementary communication strategy or outreach program is not a dictum but rather reflects an ongoing dialogue.

Everyone at the table must consider the mission, not just the technology.

The ultimate effectiveness of any IT modernization effort should be measured not by the replacement of one system with another but by an agency’s ability to successfully execute its mission. Stakeholders should be engaged in conversation about mission while developing the strategic roadmap for modernization. During many modernizations, much time is spent discussing infrastructure, the cloud, or apps when the focus should instead be on the mission, results, and meeting the needs of the customers.

In addition, total commitment to new technology – and new ways of working – is required for agencies that don’t want to find themselves straddling a line between old and new ways of doing business. Successful execution of a few smaller projects can provide quick wins that motivate an agency to pursue larger, more far-reaching efforts – and keeps them oriented toward mission. Bender recalls how NTIS began helping other agencies’ transformation efforts at the same time it was going through its own transformation: “We transformed NTIS, evolving our own mission from providing agencies publication services to delivering innovative data services. This experience, in turn helped us assist other agencies with mission-critical problems.”

The bottom line according to Bender? “When you think of the end game as how can we help citizens or customers, it really helps provide you with the right orientation.”

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This article was originally published on FederalNewsRadio.com.
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