Chris Niedermayer (above) is associate CIO for information and technology management at the Agriculture Department, and Chris Durney is vice president of the Ambit Group of Reston, Va.
Dec 31 2009

Three Rules to Get and Keep Buy-In

The conviction is growing — among organizational planners and information technology experts — that providing unified IT support for business practices that are common to multiple programs is the right thing to do. The simple reasoning is this: Build and pay for the system once, instead of three or four different times, and everybody can save money and still have the support they need.

For the last decade at least, this reasoning has been working its way into the heart of the federal approach to IT planning and decision-making.

Unfortunately, funds for these projects are not usually centrally appropriated. One of the trickier challenges for IT leaders who undertake these types of efforts is to convince affected program managers to contribute funds to them — projects that are characteristically long-term, complex and at the daunting enterprisewide level. After all, good program managers have the day-to-day concerns of their specific programs in their direct line of sight.

Learn by Doing

At the Agriculture Department, we have been managing enterprise-level projects for a number of years. And although having high-level sponsorship for these efforts — and we’re talking about the secretary and undersecretary levels — is critical, we have learned that convincing program managers to join the process willingly is just as important. Through trial and error, we have discovered some rules for convincing program managers to contribute substantial funds to cross-agency efforts. Although we are still not perfect in the way we follow these rules, we know that without attention to them, the projects cannot succeed.

Three rules stand out:

First, you must convince all stakeholders of the value of proceeding at the enterprise level. And because people always make decisions based on their individual situations, it is not enough to convince them that benefits will accrue for USDA. For these managers to give us their full buy-in, we must convince them that their individual programs will benefit directly.

Showing how their resources will actually be extended through these projects best conveys this value. One of the USDA enterprise-level projects, AgLearn, consolidated multiple USDA learning management systems. At the start, we tried to convince the participants that by consolidating their learning investments, they each would benefit from the greater economies of scale that resulted.

This first rule has a refinement: You need to demonstrate the promised value quickly. Within the first couple of years of the AgLearn project, for instance, we observed that multiple agencies were contracting separately from the same vendors for the same online courseware. This observation let us negotiate enterprise licenses for the software that saved the participants approximately $700,000 annually. It’s not a huge sum, to be sure, but enough to reinforce our argument that their participation would lead to saved resources.

The second rule is simply stated but hard to implement without organizational discipline: You must be up-front with your stakeholders about the project, especially about costs and progress. The smallest surprise in funding requests or schedules can undermine months of preliminary work spent building consensus. So having effective project and financial management processes and reporting is crucial.

The third rule is that getting buy-in is a continuous effort. In our experience, it is taking years, not weeks or months, for AgLearn to become a fixed part of the cultural fabric of USDA. Why? Because program managers deal every day with the specifics and intricacies of their own programs. They are constantly subject to conflicting priorities and must continually reallocate their resources to deal with emergent and shifting concerns. And this is the way it should be.

We must communicate to them the project’s ongoing value to make sure it remains on their radar screens. For the past several years, we have used AgLearn to ensure that 100 percent of USDA employees refresh their security and privacy training annually. Each year, we smooth out the process a little more, and each year, more program managers can point to the AgLearn numbers to validate that their program complies with USDA’s security-training mandate.

There is no easy answer to getting the buy-in of program managers, but following these rules will go a long way toward winning the support of even the most focused program manager.

Photo: James Kegley