Three Keys to a Successful IT Transformation
Leading a successful IT transformation at a large institution like the Internal Revenue Service, the focus of the final five years of my government career, is a complex, difficult task, but not impossible. It’s a rewarding journey full of ups and downs that requires patience, persistence, resilience, coalition building, and consistency.
When we first started, the needs were many: we had no comprehensive monitoring system; tools were purchased but there was no integration strategy; and our CTO was often stopped in the halls by business executives and commissioners being informed that critical business systems were down.
Our goal was to ensure optimal availability of IT Services for our customers through the use of processes and technology that provided end-to-end monitoring (i.e. visibility of applications up and down the stack), and auto-ticketing of critical systems and infrastructure components.
We ensure optimal availability of IT Services for our customers through the use of processes and technology that provide end-to-end monitoring, and auto-ticketing of critical systems and infrastructure components
Our focus was to better understand how our systems and infrastructure were operating to proactively prevent outages, or quickly alert the right teams to speed up service restoration. We worked hard to deploy, integrate, and maintain a suite of ITSM tools that not only support our event, incident and problem management processes, but also our configuration, change, asset, and knowledge management processes.
The journey is not complete, but in a period of five years:
• Data, including data on the availability of the most critical systems, is now a strategic measure of IRS performance, and is published in the IRS Strategic Plan; as Terry Milholland, our former CTO would often say, “facts and data will set you free”.
• We went from being unable to reliably understand customer experience to measuring it from over 30 locations across multiple applications.
• We now have a world-class 24/7/365 command center with comprehensive incident and problem management capabilities. The IRS went from lacking the data needed to solve problems quickly to having the ability to proactively monitor our top critical business applications. Today, when a critical outage occurs, there is far less finger-pointing or guessing. In many cases, the incident is auto-ticketed and routed to people who can fix it–fast.
I’m proud to say we’ve accomplished great things, and learned some big lessons along the way. Here are three of the most important ones:
1. Standards are important…but so is flexibility. When IT leaders embark on a transformation project, they often begin with the assumption that certain standards are inviolable. At the IRS we discovered that, sometimes, those standards were difficult to reconcile with the goal of giving our professionals the tools they need to perform their jobs more effectively. So be open to the idea of revisiting your organization’s standards and what the field is saying. You’ll end up with a better tool, and better buy-in from the field. And buy-in is what matters most in the long run. A new tool has to be used if it’s to have real value, and stubbornly sticking to what higher-ups think is the right path is a sure-fire way to ensure the tool isn’t used.
2. Don’t assume people know what they want. As Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”You have to provide leadership and understand why people think they need what they’re requesting.
When we first started the project people would often tell us, “This is what I want from the tool”. Some of them would even provide us with a list of requirements that we’d take and go to work on. Once we were done, we’d show it to them and hear, “That’s not what we had in mind.” By then their reality had changed in some way, and “Plan A” didn’t sound so good any longer. The key to avoiding this headache is to stay engaged with stakeholders throughout the process and focus on the outcome they are trying to accomplish. Hold regular check-in meetings and build towards their outcome in smaller more regular deliverables.
Also, provide real world context to help them better understand what they want and what is possible.
3. Adoption is the most important KPI. In the end, technology only matters if it enables people to produce the outcomes they need. Whether it is a piece of software or an application, if people don’t use it, value will never be realized. But many times we make the mistake of believing that the success of an IT roll-out is defined by whether or not it went live at the targeted date and on budget. That’s important, sure. But the go-live is only the start of the journey. A new piece of IT will not be fully understood by users on day one, so they’ll be taking baby steps. You want to move forward by developing a plan that focuses on driving adoption and engagement, and that measures the success of the roll-out at the three-month mark, six-month mark, and so on.
Involving end-users in the rollout of new software can have tremendous benefits for an organization. Early on I made a mistake. I worked very closely with the Application owners because they understood the systems and therefore what needed to be monitored, but I failed to bring in the Operations teams and the Command Center folks who actually do the monitoring. As a result, we didn’t have the right level of acceptance and use of the new monitoring tools.
I made an adjustment three years ago and brought the Operations and Command Center managers and technicians up front in the development process and engaged them early and often. As a result, the level of adoption increased.
The past three filing seasons have been the best we’ve had in terms of hitting targets, system uptime, and satisfaction from both internal and external customers. We’ve had fewer issues; navigated complex tax rules associated with the Affordable Care Act, and pushed electronic filing above 90 percent. We’ve achieved this by being flexible in our approach to IT, ensuring that people were getting what they really needed, and driving widespread adoption. We did it, and so can you.