Jim Shanks is executive vice president and former CIO of CDW, a FORTUNE 500 company.
Dec 31 2009

Pick Methodologies That Make Sense

There are all sorts of well-designed processes to help measure effectiveness, to help assure that a systems implementation or upgrade stays on track, and to help guide management decisions and assure that a project progresses in the right direction.

Many of these tools, methodologies and techniques are mostly known by their acronyms: EVM or ITIL or PART. Others have intriguing names such as Six Sigma and its more recent hybrid manifestation, Lean Six Sigma. Applying some of these methodologies is mandatory. For instance, the Office of Management and Budget requires that agencies use the Program Assessment Rating Tool and earned value management to evaluate cost worthiness and effectiveness of information technology projects.

No matter the circumstances under which an agency applies one of these techniques, it’s also the project team’s job to evaluate (and re-evaluate) the true worth of any approach in achieving the mission objective. In other words, federal program managers aren’t in their jobs just for the sake of running programs.

Shooting for the Stars

“For any big IT program to be successful, there are literally a hundred stars out there — and the stars really need to align,” says Randolph C. Hite, director of IT architecture and systems at the Government Accountability Office. “There’s usually some degree of structure to these ‘stars,’ to the point that they define a ‘constellation’ that’s understandable. And to the extent that they don’t, they’re just a hodgepodge of stars — and they may result in something other than what you intended.”

Something other than what’s intended can be hazardous to a program’s ability to, first and foremost, achieve its objective but also to avoid a budget wallop from the administration and/or Congress.

“By using tools or techniques to evaluate a program, you’re trying to achieve a certain level of situational awareness,” says Hite. “The fact is that there are so many situations you’ve got to pay attention to. These tools, methodologies, techniques, managerial processes — all of these arrows in your quiver — are designed to help you know: Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing it the right way? Am I on a path for success?”

In the end, though, the IT team must be highly selective in choosing its “arrows.” What you do today in executing a given program is not necessarily a carbon copy of what you did on a prior program. You might need a new technique.

Weighing the Options

When deciding what management approach to use, agencies need to think beyond the specific project at hand. IT can drive change, but it also is part of the bigger enterprise, says Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State CIOs in Lexington, Ky.

“It’s true that there are many, many measurement tools and techniques and methodologies,” Robinson says. “In fact, it’s the flavor of the day, in some cases. But we should treat enterprise architecture as the Holy Grail. … It’s important to think in terms of business process to have a comprehensive and rigorous method for doing ‘as-is’ and ‘to-be’ thinking.”

Ultimately, agencies should broadly apply good techniques, not just to IT but to overall business processes and performance measurement, to answer the simple question: How do I improve my process? “In that context,” Robinson says, “the really useful methodologies, like EA, make a lot of sense.”

That’s precisely the point. Make use of techniques when plain old common sense shouts loudly that you should. Then back that up with measurement because these methodologies aren’t free. Solid results are the only way to justify any investment in time, energy and resources — no matter the process.

Photo: John Welzenbach