4 executive organizers

Three small-agency CIOs discuss strategies for managing personal e-mail and BlackBerry use, PowerPoint presentations, and brainstorming

Federal chief information officers struggle every day with complex issues as they strive to align technology with their agencies’ mandates. But often, it’s the simple things that make or break their days: managing network connectivity, mastering the art of the meeting, brainstorming with officials who run their agencies’ major programs and keeping the e-mail monster under control. We asked three federal CIOs to share ideas about how they manage the mundane so they can effectively deal with the larger problems facing them.

1. E-mail

Managing e-mail inboxes is a nearly universal annoyance. Sorting the daily deluge of messages is a personal-management challenge, and storing all those messages during their useful lifetime places a strain on agencies of all sizes.

The e-mail challenge requires small-agency CIOs to be aggressive about managing inboxes on personal and agency levels. “We put limitations on the mailboxes,” said John Rogers, CIO at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “We have a warning that starts at 250M. At 300, it cuts off.”

Rogers said his staff members encourage employees to organize their e-mail messages into different mailbox files and store them on the agency’s storage-area network. The agency set the size limit on the server primarily for business continuity. “One of the reasons we went to the limitations on mailboxes was the recovery time required to bring [Microsoft] Exchange back up” after it goes down for whatever reason, he said.

For many agencies, especially those with even modest records management requirements, archiving technology is becoming a necessity for keeping server storage manageable and content within easy reach. Rogers said the product safety commission is looking for an archiving solution.

Alec Palmer, CIO at the Federal Election Commission, faces similar archiving challenges. “We’re running out of space and need to be efficient,” he said. FEC is a Lotus Notes shop. “We’re looking at archiving on a separate server so that it’s available in real time,” he said.

Archiving is important to Palmer and FEC because of the number of employees who access e-mail remotely via XMail, a Web-based mail client. “If you haven’t cleaned out your inbox, XMail is very slow,” Palmer said. “Archiving will help us keep mailboxes cleaner and smaller.”

At the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, CIO William Kirkendale said storage-limit policies and Symantec’s Enterprise Vault satisfied the agency’s requirements for managing e-mail. “We have a couple of ways to search through the content: Vault Explorer and a search tool,” Kirkendale said.

But the first line of defense for each of these CIOs is the creation of e-mail folders. Each of them maintains multiple folders to organize messages and move important ones out of their inboxes.

“My staff educates people to set up folders and gives them the option of saving their sent messages in a special folder” in Notes, Palmer said. “We teach them to think of it as a filing cabinet and categorize their folders by content. We also have search tools within Notes that are very effective at finding any word within messages,” Palmer added.

Rogers said he uses another method to help keep his e-mail organized: He has two e-mail boxes. One is his personal inbox for internal use. The second is an inbox with a CIO address for external use. The CIO address is listed on the agency Web site and the Small Agency CIO Council site, he said.

“It’s a great place for transition e-mails” if there’s a change in CIOs, Rogers added. However, because the mailbox address is published on the Web, it could become a major spam magnet. “Fortunately, we have really good spam detection software,” Clearswift’s MimeSweeper, he said. “We’ve been very fortunate. It has had a very low false-positive rate for spam.”

2. The BlackBerry

Wireless e-mail is part of nearly every federal CIO’s life these days — both supporting it and using it. In addition to deciding who gets to have a Research in Motion BlackBerry, small-agency CIOs have the difficult job of managing their own availability through the device. Many of them say the BlackBerry lets them balance being connected to the office and having a life outside the office.

The BlackBerry also factors heavily in many federal CIOs’ disaster recovery and business continuity plans. The primary management issues are balancing the cost of the service against the need to keep agency executives and information technology staff members accessible during emergencies.

“We’re not really a 24/7 shop,” Palmer said. “But we do need to provide support on weekends, and [BlackBerrys] have been a great asset,” he added. “There’s a peace of mind in that you can get an answer in five minutes instead of five hours.”

Palmer and his staff members recently put the finishing touches on a policy for managing the agency’s wireless e-mail devices. “Adding up the monthly fees, the BlackBerry can get pretty expensive,” Palmer said. The new policy sets levels of functionality available to various classes of users and establishes which roles in the agency require BlackBerrys.

Palmer also had the delete function on FEC BlackBerrys turned off by default because the devices are fully synchronized with the agency’s IBM Lotus Notes servers. “We turn [the delete function] off unless they specifically want it,” he said. “We encourage users not to delete [any message] from the BlackBerry because then it’s deleted from Notes.”

Although deleting a message doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lost, the habit of deleting BlackBerry messages after reading them could mean that messages not captured by a backup system could disappear from the system, creating a scramble for lost information and a records management problem.

At the Consumer Product Safety Commission, BlackBerry policies center on executive use and business continuity, Roberts said. About 50 people in the agency have BlackBerrys of various models, and the agency uses RIM’s BlackBerry Enterprise Server to synchronize with Microsoft Exchange. “We don’t disable the delete capability,” he said. “But I do have personal instances where I’ve deleted something and was able to pull it back.”

As for escaping the addictive properties of the BlackBerry, CIOs have their personal strategies. Kirkendale said he reads his BlackBerry messages in spurts.

“I like to knock e-mails out as quickly as I can,” Kirkendale said. “I’ve heard people talk about how it’s a crackberry, but I’d rather crack ’em out when I can than have 50 e-mails waiting for me when I get back to my desk.”

Palmer is a BlackBerry Pearl user. “I carry it with me, but on the weekend, if I know nothing’s going on, I won’t keep it clipped to my hip. It’s around at night. But I look at it as something to facilitate making my life easier. We have a culture at FEC of working hard, and the Black-Berry helps us augment that.”

However, like Kirkendale, Palmer said he isn’t a big fan of typing long responses on the BlackBerry, especially on the Pearl’s limited keyboard. “You have to be patient, but it learns well,” he said. “I’m even to the point of starting to use some of that texting language that the kids use.”

Roberts is another advocate of sane BlackBerry use. “I look at mine regularly. There are different levels of adoption, but we have a good practice here in our organization where it doesn’t rule the individual.” Roberts said he makes it a rule to not drop everything when the BlackBerry vibrates. “I try to keep a good balance of having it available but not ruling our lives. At night, I may check it now and again — more during the day, less on weekends. I’ll typically connect to mail via [a virtual private network] from home.”

3. PowerPoint presentations

Preparing for an executive presentation requires more than pulling together some PowerPoint slides. Rogers said he can’t imagine just walking into a presentation with a slide deck. “In some cases, that’s all you get — a chance to look through the [slide] deck,” he said.

“The greatest tip I could give anyone on presentations,” he added, “is to do as much prep work as you can, practicing on folks, on your staff.” Rogers said he believes in trying out the material on people who are the intended audience for presentations to make certain that the concepts are right for the audience.

For a recent presentation, Rogers went even further, showing his slides to each of the planned meeting’s participants in advance. “All of the participants got previews, so people were ready for the content. It took a lot of work, but it was very important,” he said.

Sometimes slides might not be the best medium. Palmer said the presentations he makes each quarter to the FEC’s six commissioners are all in PowerPoint standard templates. But for other situations, he turns to more interactive sources.

At a recent conference of provincial and state CIOs in Vancouver, British Columbia, Palmer spoke about how the FEC developed its systems. “Rather than PowerPoint, I showed all the systems we built on our Web site. There’s more stuff on the Web that you can use for presentations and demos. It’s more effective to use something live instead of a canned presentation.”

With interactive data, it’s easier to respond to queries that come up in the course of a presentation. “You just can’t do that in a PowerPoint,” Palmer said. “To be honest, if you can do a presentation [with live applications], that’s more meaningful.”

4. Brainstorming

Often, one of the most important tasks CIOs undertake is pulling together various constituencies in their organization to map a strategy or collectively make decisions on what new projects to launch. When it comes to brainstorming, some CIOs have become advocates for a more technically driven approach. But many still prefer having a conference room, a whiteboard and a marker in hand.

“Different people use different tools, but there’s nothing like hashing it out on a whiteboard,” Rogers said. “If it’s just getting together and brainstorming, we use a printable whiteboard and have someone draft something up. We do use [Microsoft] Office Communicator a great deal when we have people in different locations, and we use videoconferencing a lot. Sometimes we blend the two together.”

Palmer said brainstorming is a major part of his agency’s IT project review process. “I don’t know the business activities as well as the people who own them. The only technique I really use for brainstorming meetings is to send an agenda out ahead of time.”

Palmer added that he uses FEC’s strategic plan as a template and maps out where he thinks the IT initiatives fit and how they meet business objectives. “Then everyone takes the floor,” he said. “I encourage people to think across the board, not just [in] their area of expertise. We’ve actually been quite successful. At the end of the day, we’ve had a lot of success agreeing where [project dollars] should be spent. I have a rapport with all the senior leaders, and that makes it easy.”

Kirkendale uses MindMapper, a software package for organizing ideas. “It’s a visual tool to draw relationships between things and ideas,” he said. “It’s a very useful tool we’ve been using for a few years.”

But Kirkendale also has used his own decidedly low-tech exercises for teambuilding and visualizing projects. “I bought some china plates for a dollar apiece and wrote the names [of team members] on them, and around the sides I wrote processes that were important to the project. Then we filled out index cards for each element of the processes and put them on the plates to see how much was on each person’s plate.”

Kirkendale said he included contractors in the exercise, but they got paper plates.

Gallagher is a freelance writer in Baltimore. He can be reached at sean@dendro.com.

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