Jim Shanks is executive vice president and former CIO of CDW.

Feb 17 2009

Beware Inertia

It’s a heady time to work in federal IT. There’s a new president who professes a love for all things techie, who is so besotted with his BlackBerry and texting that the National Security Agency devised a special encryption application specifically to make it possible for him to continue using the device.

If you’re a techie, it could be easy to get excited about what an Obama administration might mean for technology developments in government. But in the push and pull of day-to-day management of the nation’s systems infrastructure, it can be awfully easy to get tunnel vision, too.

That’s a truth for any IT shop in any large organization, of which the U.S. government has some of the largest. The demands of supporting users’ needs and maintaining systems sometimes become so intense that alignment with agency mission or a new transformation strategy can get pushed aside.

But it’s the CIO’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Just consider this comment from John Garing: “It’s too easy to sit back and think, ‘This is not our job; we didn’t sign up for this; we’re not funded for this.’”

You have to fight those notions — that inertia, argues Garing, CIO for the Defense Information Systems Agency. It’s not that these feelings by the IT team aren’t legit. They most definitely are grounded in the realities of the job — because, as Garing notes, it’s tough to balance all the ongoing work that must get done with new things on the horizon or, sometimes, at your doorstep.

Yet, IT has to step up or it becomes irrelevant, less a leader and driver of technology in an organization and more a service provider. But who is closer to technology and knows its potential? The new agency chief — or the IT team with years of service?

So how do you become the driver, not the driven?

Go for It

First off, seize ownership of the mission and technology challenges laid out for you by leadership. Grab the brass ring, as Garing says.

One way to do this is to have your staff more directly interact with program officials and leaders in your agency. Give them the chance to get revved up about the mission; it’s why most folks choose government over industry jobs and even opt for less pay. Check out the job satisfaction survey data. A startling 91 percent of feds consider their work important, according to the 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey. But here’s the rub: Just 40 percent say the government rewards creativity and innovation.

That gap can be your opportunity. If the IT team indeed takes on these challenges as a team and with its members spearheading initiatives, it’s a chance to spark innovation, reward your staff and get out ahead of these projects.

Another way to create momentum: Take a small element of a grand idea and have IT develop the pieces that they can deliver on quickly or offer a service that will fulfill a need in the interim. So maybe you can’t roll out a new mail system tomorrow that provides a common address directory for users worldwide, but you could provide a portal that lets them share and exchange information while you tackle the bigger network infrastructure challenge. Look for game-changer ideas that will excite people and create buzz around IT. It will motivate the staff and garner good will within the broader organization.

Finally, give back to your staff. It’s such an obvious tool at your disposal, but one that you have to act on to make worthwhile. Giving back doesn’t mean you necessarily have to pay them more, but incentives and bonuses are nice if you have them available. It does mean mentoring and encouraging good work. It also means providing training options and ways for your staff members to move up the pay scales and attain good performance ratings. It’s not just a job, after all; it’s about serving people and using IT to make that happen more easily, more transparently. It’s the CIO’s job to do that same thing for his or her staff.