Cures for the compulsive gadget grabber

Unflinching focus on value and program needs helps rein in temptation to buy the latest and greatest toys

Even curmudgeons might start to weaken as they stroll the aisles at FOSE or other popular high-tech trade shows. We humans seem to succumb to the coolness of the newest and fastest software and hardware. 

But a nagging question that’s best contemplated away from the show floor is how do you distinguish valuable technology from the latest techno fad. It’s the question that chief information officers face every day.

“When we wake up in the morning, our first thought isn’t, ‘Do I have the latest and greatest computer technology?’ ” said Dan Mintz, the Transportation Department’s CIO. “The real question is, ‘What do we want to use the technology for?’ And that’s actually the harder question.”

To help answer it, CIOs often rely on technology specialists to evaluate new offerings. They also forge closer ties with program managers to help them recognize high-tech innovations that could improve agency programs.  

It’s a strategy that can counteract trade show swoon. “People spend too much time looking at gee-whiz features and not enough time talking to their customers to see what they really want and what really provides value,” said Vic Stannish, CIO at the Douglas-Omaha Technology Commission Board (Dotcomm), an organization that provides centralized IT services for Omaha and the surrounding Douglas County.

Pragmatic upgrades

Trade shows aren’t the only source of technology cravings. Highly hyped product introductions, such as Microsoft’s recent Vista release, force agencies to weigh a new product’s appeal against the inevitable disruptions that accompany major upgrades. Mintz said public-sector CIOs should steel themselves against the market hype associated with new product releases.

“That’s the easy decision whenever there’s a new version of something you already have,” Mintz said. He added that any move to Vista will have to wait while DOT contemplates its broader desktop strategy. “The first step is to think about what is it we are trying to do and where do we want to be in three years.”

Stannish takes a similarly unapologetic turn away from the leading edge. “We always seem to be a release or two behind the current offering, which isn’t always bad,” he said. “I’m not reluctant to let somebody else do the pioneering.”

Stannish said Vista must prove itself to be more valuable to Dotcomm than any of the e-government applications that city and county leaders have requested.

Vista “may be pretty neat, but why would I venture into something like that when I have a backlog of existing expectations?” he asked.

Technology decisions always have more than one dimension, so they are never simple. “A lot of people get hung up on just the technology and what features it might have, but technology is only one of three other considerations that have to all be put together,” said John Thomas, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. People, workflow and existing infrastructure components contribute to IT success, he added. “It is those four dimensions that play into the picture of how you develop a return on what you invest to resolve a problem.”

To make those decisions, some agencies appoint technology evangelists whose main job is to study high-tech trends and see if any are a fit. Mintz relies on DOT’s chief technology officer to divide his time between learning the needs of senior department officials and speaking with technology company leaders to stay abreast of IT developments.

The Naval Postgraduate School institutionalized that strategy when it established the New Technology and Innovation Center (NTIC), a four-person department that evaluates new technology for faculty members and administration officials. The school’s desire to avoid adding to the IT maintenance workload was an important reason for creating the center. 
“One school would buy one solution, and another school would buy a different but very similar solution, leaving us with two solutions to support,” said Jonathan Russell, the center’s lead technologist.

Russell’s group works closely with the people who will use a particular technology as it evaluates IT and develops implementation plans. “We know in the end that the solutions we adopt will be cost-effective and will mesh with our current IT infrastructure,” Russell said.

That collaboration produced a quick solution to rising printing costs in the school’s five-person executive education department. The department had requested four new laser printers and additional multifunction equipment that performs the functions of printers, scanners, copiers and fax machines. But the NTIC questioned why such a small department needed such high-volume printing resources.

“It turned out they were printing copies of all of the class materials so the officers could follow along and take notes,” Russell said. The price for this convenience was about $150,000 a year, which included the cost of paper, toner and other printing consumables.

Why not replace hefty binders of course materials with electronic versions that students could save to a portable hard drive? NTIC officials asked. And that’s what they did. The department  gave the students thumb drives and loaned them pen-based tablet PCs.

“We talked to several tablet vendors, ran the numbers and found that we could save money with this approach,” Russell said. School officials projected that they would avoid spending $250,000 to $300,000 in three years by reducing their costs for paper and ink and installing low-volume multifunction equipment.

Custom-tailored
Many organizations take an opportunistic approach to acquiring new technology. “For us, it’s a matter of keeping an eye out for technology that may have some new applicability,” said Marti Szczur, deputy associate director of the National Library of Medicine’s Specialized Information Services Division, part of the National Institutes of Health.

For years, NLM has maintained a master database of about 5,000 hazardous materials for researchers, clinicians and toxicologists. But three years ago, prompted by talks with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the library decided to create a new application of the master database for emergency first responders.

The library planned to take from the larger database information about a subset of substances that public safety employees would be most likely to encounter. This smaller dataset could then be downloaded more easily to Palm Pilot personal digital assistants and Windows-based smart phones.

The result was the Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders, which holds descriptions of about 400 hazardous substances.

Roll the dice
Agencies that typically rely on tightly controlled methods of introducing new technology sometimes recognize the need to take a leap of faith. The Education Department was an early adopter of voice-over-IP technology when it started using VOIP telecommunications equipment about seven years ago. After evaluating the technology, the agency realized VOIP had potential benefits that the public switched telephone network did not have. Those included lower telecom costs for the department’s geographically dispersed offices and easy-to-configure conference phone bridges.

“You can’t just say, ‘Ooh, this sounds really sexy and cool. Let’s do it,’ ” said Peter Tseronis, director of network services at Education. But when department officials recognized how VOIP could improve productivity, they committed to it.

Tseronis said he didn’t consider that technology decision to be capricious or risky. “We pick and choose strategically.”

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@worldpath.com
Borrow a few ideas from the private sectorAvoid the bleeding edge, said Barry West, the Commerce Department’s chief information officer. He also is president of the American Council for Technology (ACT), a nonprofit information technology advisory organization.

To help him decide when new technologies are mature enough for government use, West said he relies in part on reports from IT market research companies and the IT Association of America (ITAA), a trade group that represents high-tech companies. 

Public-sector CIOs typically have public service foremost in mind when they plan new IT projects, but increasingly agencies are asked to perform return-on-investment analyses. “Government has become much more businesslike over the last 10 years, thanks to the business cases we’re now required to produce,” West said.

Dan Mintz, the Transportation Department’s CIO, said he encourages technological cross-fertilization among his senior managers by urging them to join industry organizations such as ITAA and ACT and volunteer to serve on steering committees in those groups.

“It’s important that the government gets input on a regular basis from the private sector in terms of what technologies are out there,” Mintz said. “You don’t want to do that just when you throw a [request for proposals] over the wall. Information has to flow back and forth.”

— Alan Joch

How do you know when you’ve found the right stuffThe Naval Postgraduate School’s New Technology and Innovation Center (NTIC) uses these four steps to evaluate new technology:

1. Evaluate compatibility.
If a particular technology looks like it might fill a need, the NTIC analyzes the technology to determine if it meshes with the existing infrastructure. “It could be a great system, but if implanting it means a forklift replacement, then it’s probably a nonstarter,” said Jonathan Russell, lead technologist at the center.

2. Check out what’s in the market.
NTIC staff members frequent high-tech and education conferences, logging hours of booth duty to stay current on new introductions, Russell said. Staff members also regularly seek colleagues at other universities to share information about products and vendors.

3. Hold a demo derby.
Once the NTIC narrows its short list to two or three possible solutions, the center invites the vendors to demonstrate their projects. Before the companies leave, they’re asked to provide test products for the center to analyze.

4. Try it in a small way.
When a possible fit is found, the center begins with a small implementation and solicits input from the faculty, students and staff members.

— Alan Joch

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