Federal IT professionals are in tune with the challenges and issues facing most agencies, but they may not recognize or even be aware that Native American tribes make up a unique and tightknit community within the government sector.
Not only does this community exist, but many IT vendors see it as its own market. In fact, over the past 10 years, several solutions providers have dedicated representatives or teams specifically for the tribal IT market, taking into consideration the tribes' unique challenges as well as their unique opportunities. For more than a decade, TribalNet, an organization that brings technology and tribes together, has provided resources that help tribes improve the decisions they make regarding technology.
Many of the challenges faced by IT teams within the tribes are the same as those in any government IT shop. Like other federal IT departments, tribal IT organizations are asked to do more with less and to improve efficiency while managing with limited resources.
Most Native American tribes organize and operate as stand-alone governments with their own elected officials, schools and judicial systems, as well as public safety, housing, natural resources and cultural departments. Many also operate extremely successful businesses and economic development corporations.
Gaming and hospitality are among the most well-known business operations that Native American tribes are involved with, but they have other revenue streams as well. Manufacturing, construction and retail are a part of their diverse economic portfolios. The challenge of functioning as a government while watching the bottom line as a business puts tribal IT teams in an unusual leadership position.
Native American tribes' IT departments are typically set up as either "separated" or "single" structures.
In a separated structure, a tribe usually has one IT department for government functions and one for the gaming facilities and other enterprises owned by the tribe.
In a single structure, the IT department oversees both the business and government sides, which often also include healthcare facilities. The IT leaders in these departments must be conscious of the needs of their members while deploying technology that helps save money and produce revenue for the tribe's businesses.
Inside Tribal IT:
To get a look at some of the technology efforts under way within Native American tribes, check out tribalnetonline.com. The site details efforts by several tribes in the United States.
Tribal IT leaders must focus on the hot topics of the day, such as mobile devices and social media, while effectively managing their staff, budget and vendors. They are deploying technology for better management within the areas of analytics and business intelligence. They are building their infrastructure and data centers for high reliability and redundancy. They are evaluating technologies such as virtualization and document management for cost savings and efficiency.
For example, the Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority started virtualizing servers in 2008 at its main healthcare facility in Talihina, Okla., and eight rural clinics in the southeast part of the state. The IT staff has implemented client virtualization at each of the clinics and operates more than 600 virtual machines in all. By sharing their virtualization insights and experiences on a recent TribalNet webinar sponsored by VMware, IT leaders from the Health Services Authority sought to fuel similar success stories at other tribal organizations across the country.
Such peer-to-peer connections are key to TribalNet's mission. Through efforts such as webinars, membership resources and an annual conference, TribalNet enables the members of the tightknit tribal IT community, helping them to help each other.