The Elusive Promise of Enterprise IT

I'm working with a client at a major crossroads with their program and the supporting system. We've been soliciting a ton of feedback, working through various communication approaches, and refreshing guidance to reflect a more user-center approach. They'll pull through but the broader questions raised on the return on investment-- particularly for the supporting IT system-- has me thinking about other federal programs in a similar position.

"It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge."

Montgomery Schuyler expressed this sentiment the day the Brooklyn Bridge opened for traffic in May 1883. That milestone moment marked the end of more than a decade of planning and construction and the beginning of a new era for commerce and economic growth for the region. Flash forward to 2014.  Our infrastructure has been revolutionized several times over and we now count our reliance on information technology systems among our critical infrastructure. In the case of physical infrastructure, a lasting concrete and steel monument is a testament to the tremendous effort expended.  For our core information technology systems, the results can be equally transformative. 

As it was then, careers and lives are defined and shaped around these massive, multi-year structural efforts. Years are invested in planning, design, and implementation and, ultimately, success is made possible by the complex choreography that mobilizes the right skills at the right time. After all of the blood, sweat, and occasional tears, we do not often take the opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished.

Many agencies are nearing the end of a massive investment and undertaking in the implementation of enterprise-wide systems (many of them financial systems). As the final milestones are reached, leadership has a unique opportunity to proactively answer the following questions. 

  • Does the new (insert cryptic but sometimes clever acronym here) live up to the promise for a more comprehensive, efficient, effective system?
  • Have we actually consolidated more our legacy systems?
  • Have we closed any data centers?
  • Have we united staff around the core mission and armed them with tools and information that needed to carry out mission work?

Answering these questions takes leadership and guts—a willingness to take a hard look at the investment and outcomes to celebrate what worked and acknowledge what did not.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.

Getting the Right People in the Right Job for IT Modernization

      VanBurens Home Decor, Cloud Print

    
VanBurens Home Decor, Cloud Print

Federal agencies face a massive undertaking in strengthening and consolidating their IT processes and workforce to counter the threats in a rapidly evolving sector. After all, that’s the concern driving implementation of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. FITARA was crafted on the premise that the current operating model isn’t resilient enough to deflect a large-scale attack or efficient enough to withstand growing budget scrutiny.

After it became law in December 2014, FITARA sparked numerous planning and consolidation efforts for agency information officers, chiefs of contracting, and budget staff. FITARA gives agency CIOs the approval power and oversight responsibility for technology acquisitions. The purpose is to adapt the federal IT acquisition process to major industry trends while ensuring greater transparency and accountability. Key changes resulting from FITARA include enhancing CIO authority, improving risk management, increasing IT portfolio review visibility, establishing a stronger role for acquisitions staff and maximizing strategic sourcing through greater governmentwide software purchasing.

Because federal IT staff are on the hook for making all of these requirements a reality, agencies are now dusting off (or beginning to develop) strategic IT workforce plans to address the “people piece” of this complex equation. To me, the strategic IT workforce component—how these major changes are done with the current federal staff and what skill sets are needed for the future—is especially compelling, but surely won’t be easy.

It’s not surprising that IT is a prime target for improving efficiency and transparency. Capital planning, budget execution, acquisition, and the workforce supporting all of this are all critical to operations and are equally expensive.

FITARA requires upfront action and has a long tail, meaning that implementation efforts will be ongoing for years to come. Agencies must work with their component bureaus, offices, divisions, and units to undergo a common planning effort and move together towards a more unified future.

Despite the FITARA’s common goals, a one size fits all approach won’t work. This is true not only because of the varying levels of IT program maturity and internal controls, but also because of the unique missions and cultures of each agency and sub-organization. Further, developing IT workforce plans will spark resistance if the primary focus is on consolidation instead of developing a menu of solutions (consolidation, strengthened communications, and increased oversight, for example) that can be mixed and matched to more precisely meet the sub-organization’s needs.

Of the federal IT executives I’ve talked to, each would like to take lessons from past IT workforce planning efforts that may have stalled or stopped. But beware the hazards of such an approach.

Why IT Workforce Plans Fail

There are three main reasons why your agency’s FITARA IT workforce plan could fail.

Incomplete data. There is a widespread belief that unless your agency has perfect or complete data, it’s not worth conducting any analysis. The alternative to this “all or nothing” approach is to get what staffing data you can (relatively easily) and document the context when presenting the results. You can build on the data and expand the analysis later. Generate interest by showing people preliminary findings on the existing staff because it gets them thinking about what’s missing or what specific question about the workforce they’d like answered. The data will be incomplete but don’t let that hold you back from doing something.

Overly-complicated analysis. Leaders and staff alike start to get excited and let the “wouldn’t it be nice to knows” run away with the analysis. Before you know it, you’re collecting an amazing but untenable amount of detail.  Capturing these shades of gray would take an enormous amount of time and effort for what is, in the end, a limited return on investment. Simple is better—even if it doesn’t reflect all of the specific nuances of hiring, training, staffing, and personnel advancement trends.  Especially when analyzing IT staff, each individual is unique and so is their situation.

Inexact modeling. Output from the staffing models seems too high or too low. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to develop a model with the level of precision that everyone will be satisfied with. However, if everyone uses the same model, this inequity should be less of a concern. The output isn’t that you’re saying you need 1,000 new IT positions, but it does give each sub-organization a sense of where they should focus recruiting/hiring for vacant or new positions in the future. A simpler model developed with in-house experience is a better, faster alternative to coming up with projections based on the IT footprint.

Federal IT executives and other agency leaders can assist in developing good, implementable plans by helping manage the expectations that the output will be perfect.

IT Workforce Plan Outcomes

The outcomes of a good, strategic IT workforce plans include the following:

  • A document to demonstrate compliance with FITARA’s requirement to develop and implement a strategic IT workforce plan.
  • Increased confidence among agency leadership that the current IT workforce is identified, the gaps are known, and that there is a plan in place to fill critically needed positions.
  • A standardized approach to evaluating the current workforce (staff count, grade, cost, skills, etc.) and a common model for estimating the needed workforce.
  • An implementable strategy to strengthen communications and oversight.
  • A strengthened working relationship among sub-organizations as a result of undertaking a collaborative, inclusive planning process.

Strategic IT workforce planning will never be simple but it can be more effective if your agency focuses on avoiding the potential pitfalls. Implementing the plan will result in a strong, more unified and efficient workforce.

Robin Camarote

I'm the co-founder of Federal MicroConsulting and strategic planning consultant based on Falls Church, VA. I am intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. In addition to consulting, I write regularly for Inc.com, GovExec.com, and Bloomberg Government on leadership and how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a best-selling book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow and Own It: Drive Your Career to a Place of Happiness and Success. I live with my husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.