May 10 2007

Promoting New Technologies: One CTO's Perspective

Commerce technology chief says he focuses on tying IT to strategy.

When it comes to the compatibility and desirability of new and emerging information technology, John McManus has considerable experience upon which to draw.

McManus is chief technology officer and deputy CIO at the Commerce Department. Prior to this, he was CTO at NASA and vice president of software technology at Bell Labs.

A chief problem, according to McManus, is that “technology today is often being driven from the bottom up, with no alignment with the overall needs of the particular organization.” He adds, “It’s funny because people have told me they never thought they’d hear a CTO say it, but we’re seeing many instances of gratuitous use of technology that’s deployed just because it exists, not because it actually furthers the needs of the organization.”

What that means is time, expertise and money was not applied to something that could add value to the organization as a whole. In the end, McManus says, “that’s a major failure,” and CIOs and CTOs have to own up to that when it happens in their agencies.

Spell IT Out

On the positive side, McManus sees hope in the competence of CIOs and CTOs to thoroughly explain the role and value of new technology within government.

“The big thing is putting the technology in the context of the value to the organization,” he says. “It’s not about replacing one piece and suddenly the whole world is better.”

This demands a keen understanding of the interrelationships between the systems and technologies within an agency. “It’s very rare that one change by itself produces a huge dividend, but working together, a number of well-chosen technology changes can provide an exponential return because you get value from multiple places — as opposed to one ‘big bang,’ where there’s often a lot of risk to get the reward,” McManus says.

And although it can be difficult to quantify the potential role of new technology in the context of an agency’s stated mission, McManus sees it as a critical step. It’s incumbent upon the CIO and CTO to define an evolutionary path to success and to detail how each IT effort will have a positive effect on other aspects of an agency’s activities. Because the immediate payoff may be less obvious, he says, that’s a hard sell in some organizations.

“The quality of what we do has to meet the needs of the agency,” he says. “We have to understand what ‘success’ looks like for the agency, and that has to be our top priority.”