Andrues: Grading the teachers

The things they teach these days: A report from the trenches

I am a chief information officer, as suggested by the certificate I recently received from the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, D.C.

Oh, don't think for a second that I'm being glib about its value. On the contrary, it was a hard-won credential, a part-time pursuit that took a year and a half of my life. Yet as I sit here with my diploma in hand, pondering its significance, questions resonate: What have I really learned? If I were thrust into a CIO position tomorrow, could I do it? What lies ahead on my academic journey, and where should I focus my future efforts?

Let me explain: NDU's Information Resources Management (IRM) College reaches students worldwide from all government disciplines. Today's federal mandates fuel its curriculum. It would be impossible to list every piece of policy and legislation that touches the broad theme of "information," but suffice it to say the IRM College's program is built on a few notable ones. Chief among them is the Clinger-Cohen Act, which created the government CIOs.

Other relevant legislation includes the Government Performance Results, the Paperwork Reduction, the Federal Information Security Management and the E-Government acts, to name a few. These heady dictates establish a number of specific requirements for federal agencies, and noncompliance is increasingly becoming nonoptional.

So how does NDU prepare students to navigate the complex contours of today's federal landscape? As a recent graduate, I thought it might be fitting to tell my story.

At the risk of sounding like a one-man infomercial for the IRM College, I was impressed. Despite the majesty of all that brick and mortar, the quality of the staff is the primary standout. Anyone who thinks NDU is a diploma mill will be pleasantly — or unpleasantly — surprised by the caliber of the instruction.

Each resident class lasts five days, usually culminating in a group project and an individual follow-on paper that is due two weeks after the project is completed. Lectures are peppered with guest speakers who are senior federal information technology executives.

For students who don't live near the school, NDU offers a robust nonresident program. Each distance-learning module lasts 12 weeks, and can be even more challenging than classroom instruction. The teachers are vigilant and impose a class participation ethic that keeps distant learners engaged.

To earn a CIO certificate, students must complete eight modules of instruction covering topic areas such as enterprise architecture and e-government. As with any college, NDU has required courses and electives, the balance of which are designed to give students the know-how to effect positive change in the workplace. In fact, this is the college's core mission — not so much to produce CIOs, but to improve the greater federal IT workforce.

In describing whether the school is achieving that goal, IRM College's founder and director, Robert Childs, speaks in anecdotal but compelling terms.

"The size and continued growth of our student body is a strong testament to how well we're doing and the impact we're having," he told me. "We're filling a niche, not necessarily teaching to information technology but information management. Our reputation is recognized, and our students keep coming back. All these things tell me we're value-added."

This is not to suggest that NDU is the only option for information management education. Its civilian equivalent is CIO University, a virtual consortium of well-known institutions that have pooled their resources into a flagship program similar to that of the IRM College.

Sponsored by the CIO Council and administered by the General Services Administration, CIO University offers a certificate program that also involves eight modules touching on a variety of themes. Because the courses are taught at civilian universities, the program is decidedly more commercial, both in terms of subject matter and how much tuition the school charges. NDU is rooted in the Defense Department and charges fees only to nonfederal students.

So, what's the secret? What golden key of knowledge does IRM College bestow that empowers its graduates to improve federal IT? The answer lies in the rudimentary response to another question: What does your agency do? This question is the basis of every lesson plan.

Whether it is acquisition, enterprise security or strategically managing Web pages, every academic theme rests on the issue of relevance to an agency's mission. From that, another basic question springs: How does IT help your agency do it? These two complementary questions are the yin and yang of the IRM College curriculum.

As simple as these two questions seem, prevailing evidence shows that government workers don't always answer them easily. Focusing on and sticking to strategy are among the most difficult things a federal agency can do. In fact, the Government Accountability Office's high-risk report kicks DOD with a number of findings. Chief among them is the department's lack of an integrated strategic planning approach to business transformation.

Although transformation is a monster with many heads — technology being one — GAO's finding should command the attention of all military CIOs whether they're stationed in South Korea; Crystal City, Va.; or Kabul, Afghanistan — and it is nothing short of a rallying cry to every student of IT. It screams for a return to the basics, invoking those two crucial questions: Who are you, and how can IT help you achieve your mission?

Of course, if answering those questions were easy, we would all be doing it. In fact, many classroom discussions in the IRM College focus on how difficult it is not only to tame but also to improve an agency's processes.

Even after scrutinizing best practices, legislation and the pronouncements of renowned managerial experts, students studying to become CIOs often conclude that there rarely is a right way. In short, beyond the pragmatics of money and policy, the path to success is rarely marked.

So what good is the CIO certificate? For me, I still have a good bit of learning to do, and my new certificate no more qualifies me to be a CIO than my driver's license makes me a NASCAR champion.

Yet within that acknowledgment lies the beauty of the degree. Although NDU yielded few concrete answers, it flipped on a switch I never knew I had. It gave me an appreciation for what good IT managers do. It has given me the ability to seek to learn others' errors and to borrow from victories. It has taught me that as a disciple of government management, I must never stop learning; in fact, I have barely begun.

I may not be a CIO today, but I have learned to think like one, and that is the most potent dimension to the paper I now hold in my hands.

Andrues, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a communications officer assigned to the Pentagon.

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