When Modernizing IT, Focus on Prioritization, Organizational Behavior

Key Takeaways for Executives:

When modernizing IT systems:

  • Make the right changes in the right order to get the biggest bang for your buck.
  • Segment large projects into smaller ones that be completed relatively quickly.
  • Build on what works while continuously measuring outcomes.
  • Seek to change organizational behavior.

Although modernizing IT can be difficult, especially at a government agency, the process will go smoother by following best practices like correctly prioritizing upgrades and promoting cultural changes to facilitate the technological ones.

Sanjay Sardar, vice president of modernization and digital transformation at SAIC, said his government customers face a number of challenges as they seek to move their legacy systems into the 21st century. These include:

  • modernizing without disrupting current operations;
  • understanding which upgrades to make and in what order;
  • keeping up with the breakneck pace of technological evolution;
  • paying for expensive new technology when the bulk of agency IT budgets is slated for maintaining legacy systems; and
  • helping personnel adapt to the changes.

“Everyone agrees there could be benefits to modernizing, but they’re trying to figure out what to modernize first, how to get there when systems are interdependent, and who pays for it,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t want to do it, but it’s a complex journey.”

Sardar said although it isn’t easy attracting and retaining top IT talent for its modernization efforts, the government should continue to focus on its core competencies and outsource where appropriate.  

At the same time, the government should teach federal employees new skills to ensure adequate oversight of these programs.

“It’s a challenge to continuously train people — not only the people who are going to do the work, but the people on the government side who are going to oversee it,” he said.

Despite the challenges, there are four best practices that will go a long way toward helping agencies on the road toward IT modernization.

First, look at modernization as a holistic journey, not a piecemeal one. Most federal systems are interdependent, and changes to one may affect several others.  

As a result, systems have to be assessed carefully and potentially upgraded in an integrated fashion. Prioritization is key; find the right combination of upgrades that will “give you the biggest return on investment” in terms of performance or savings, Sardar said.

Second, avoid obsolescence before you even get off the ground by segmenting large projects into smaller iterations that can be completed faster while continuously delivering value to customers. Be appropriately flexible and don’t unconditionally back any one vendor or methodology.

Third, learn what works and build on it, continuously measuring outcomes along the way.

“I think people get stuck on ‘we’re only 20 percent out, so we should just keep going,’” Sardar said. “That’s where projects fail. Ask if it truly looks like it’s going to work, based on evidence. If after three or four checkpoints you’re not seeing a return, it may not be working. You need good judgment and rational decisions.”

Fourth, manage organizational change in a disciplined manner.

“Understand that modernization takes more than technology change; it takes change in organizational behavior,” he said. Determine how will your organization will be impacted by IT modernization and how to ease the transition for your employees.

“Communicate, understand the culture and organization, and bring people along,” Sardar said. “The natural inclination for any organization is to resist change. People are much more likely to accept it if you work with them from the beginning.”

Tom Afferton, vice president of civil solutions at Northrop Grumman, also has some tips for how agencies can modernize their IT with a minimum of pain.

He recently told Federal News Radio a big motivation in government for wanting to upgrade IT systems is customer service — for example, ensure overseas travelers get back into the country as quickly as possible.

“For our customers, their customers — the end users — are used to [excellent service]in the commercial world, and we want to bring that to the government,” he said.

But like Sardar, he sees some long-standing impediments to meeting this goal. One of them is what to do with legacy IT systems that, while not optimal, basically get the job done.

“Our customers feel like they’re spending too much on legacy systems and that it’s holding them back from delivering capabilities and outcomes to their end customers — line officers and the general public,” he said.

Additional challenges, Afferton said, include keeping up with ever-changing government technology mandates such as the “cloud first” initiative and requirements under the 2014 Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, as well as the “evolving threat environment” in which data and IT systems are constantly under attack from different directions.

To best tackle these challenges, Afferton champions an approach similar to Sardar’s: develop a flexible “architectural roadmap” that establishes the general direction you want your organization’s IT modernization efforts to go, and then make informed decisions along the way about exactly how to get there and make tradeoffs between cost and capability.

He said an agency used to establish an IT requirement for a given project up-front, pay someone to build a solution, and test it. The problem was the system that resulted often was obsolete before it was put into service.

These days, the better approach is more iterative, often using agile methodologies.

“What that does is it drives closer interaction with and more frequent feedback provided by the operations users,” he said.

Afferton explained agile methodologies are all about “establishing a cadence of delivering capabilities, demonstrating at each step along the way that you are providing value, breaking up what you’re trying to do into manageable pieces, and getting feedback on the priority of those pieces from end customers.”

“The worst thing you can do is try to modernize a process that hasn’t been streamlined or modernized to take advantage of digital transformation,” like moving systems to the cloud, he said.

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