Dec 31 2009

Technology Needs Champions

Photo: John Welzenbach

Most American adults living in the 21st century understand that rapid-fire technological advances are as inevitable as the springtime cherry blossoms drifting past the Jefferson Memorial. But technology can develop so quickly that a lot of, maybe even most, information often breezes right past many of us.

In fact, it can be difficult to fully envision and understand the potential of cutting-edge developments if you’re not directly involved in devising or testing them. So as information technology advances at breakneck speed, somebody “in the know” needs to take it upon themselves to spread the word.

And in government, that’s when CIOs and chief technology officers can play a vital role. Some way — somehow — someone in every agency must take the lead to conjure up tactful but effective ways to make nontechnical executives and career bureaucrats alike aware of the potential of new IT tools and coming technologies: the possible service enhancements, efficiency improvements and cost reductions.

“For the really effective CIO, it’s not just about following all of the rules and laws and regulations that exist, although those are important and required,” says Fred Thompson, vice president for management and technology at the Council for Excellence in Government. “Success is really all about meeting the agency mission — and a big part of that may well involve demonstrating precisely how new IT can be a valued partner in that role.”

Willing When Ready

We still should regularly remind ourselves that the agency doesn’t exist to serve as a tryout facility for every new technology that comes down the pike; it exists to serve a vital, clearly stated mission. Anything that contributes substantially to the achievement of that mission — including the right technology in the right use — is fair game. Anything else is not.

“The key in getting people to accept new technology is to ensure their comprehensive understanding of the benefits — to them and their organization,” says Linda Wilbanks, CIO at the National Nuclear Security Administration. “And if you can show a cost-benefit savings or a risk reduction in changing to the new technology, that’s the approach to use.”

Few agency employees are prone to actively resist new technologies as long as they understand, or can readily learn, how to make best use of them. “There’s generally not a resistance to technologies you’ve thought of,” says Mark Forman, principal of KPMG and former administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget. “But if you’re asked to adopt somebody else’s solution, there’s a natural resistance.”

Even so, federal workers need to be able to grasp the importance of improved functions and streamlined efficiencies that come with new technologies. Again, this is knowledge that CIOs and CTOs should continually strive to preach as technology gospel.

“It’s not as though — with these large, complex systems that much of government is made up of — you just buy a magic technology out of the box and turn the key and suddenly get a different result,” Thompson says. “There’s an implementation process. There’s a knowledge curve. There’s a real need to understand how it applies in the environment you’re working in.

“So a big portion of the process of explaining it may simply be to get that point across — that there’s a lot of work to do to make sure new technologies fit and really pay off in a very big way as they’re intended to. And it’s not that easy.”

It may not be easy, but it is necessary. And the CIO and CTO need to accept and embrace this responsibility of explained technology and how it will genuinely result in a better environment — and better mission delivery — for everybody.