5 secrets of leading-edge technology adopters

As a former venture capitalist funding tech start-ups, Aneesh Chopra is no stranger to vetting new technologies. Then again, it’s his previous work as a consultant to health care companies that honed his eye for fixing and improving service operations. That's a skill even more valuable in his current job as Virginia’s secretary of technology, in which he sets an aggressive but careful charge for improving the performance of government.

What’s on the radar?

So what kind of technologies and applications are a couple of government innovators trying out? For Virginia officials, the list includes:

  • Drupal -- Open source content management software used in ideas.virginia.gov
  • Ning -- Social networking platform used in health department project
  • iPod touch -- state education department is exploring the viability of these devices as a supplement to classroom computers

Officials at the Social Security Administration are looking at:

  • Video conferencing technology for supporting face-to-face appeals hearings and providing services to rural communities and tribal nations
  • Knowledge management tools for capturing and sharing workforce experience
  • Optical character recognition for capturing images of medical documents

And if it can be done inexpensively, then all the better.

So when the commonwealth’s Department of Health recently noticed a high turnover rate among clinicians, a closer look pointed to the challenges health care staff members face working in small offices in remote locations. The lack of camaraderie can frustrate workers, especially those with less experience or those who are just starting their careers.

Under Chopra’s direction, the commonwealth has tapped social-networking technology to help build a sense of community among clinicians and give them a tool to share best practices for advancing state goals, such as reducing childhood obesity and boosting immunization rates. The tool they chose is called Ning, an online platform created by Marc Andreessen and others that allows people and organizations to build their own special-purpose social-networking sites.

Ning is usually made available as a free service with advertising or for a small monthly fee — about $50 a month — with no ads. However, Virginia has permission to use an advertising-free version at no charge.

Virginia launched one of the first Ning networks tied to a state agency, Chopra said, adding that the technology filled a need and did so at no cost. As many as 400 health care providers could use the Ning site, and although it is still too early to know whether it is making a significant difference, the example shows Virginia’s openness to new ideas.

Despite the public sector’s reputation as an innovation laggard, some government outfits find that life on the leading edge of technology adoption suits them just fine. They know that a willingness to find and use the latest solutions or existing tools in new ways can give them a jump on delivering benefits to employees and citizens.

However, striking gold with a new technology doesn’t happen by accident, and it certainly doesn’t happen every time. The agencies that have a better success rate than others use a disciplined and judicious approach, particularly during tough economic times.

Here’s how they do it.

Secret No. 1: They understand the problem first.

Some enterprises make the mistake of grasping for a technology solution before they analyze the problem they need to solve.

Anthony Cresswell, interim director of the Center for Technology in Government, said that’s a fairly common error. “People are faced with a problem and jump to technology as a solution before they have an understanding of the nature of the problem and what it might take to solve it,” he said.

As a consequence, an agency deploys a piece of technology that fails to address the problem. And the problems an organization typically faces tend to be rooted in business issues rather than technology, Cresswell added. The task at hand might be to expand or improve a service delivery process, for example.

Understanding the process or service is always the most important factor, with technology running second. “Service sector innovation is the most important question,” Chopra said. “I’m not as excited about whether or not it’s emerging technology.”

Scattered storage was the issue for Scott County, Minn. The county’s 70 departments each operated their own servers. Perry Mulcrone, the county's deputy CIO, described the challenge as a small staff having to administer too many disparate systems.

“That’s how we framed up the problem,” Mulcrone said.

The county then defined its requirements for a solution, including objectives such as better ease of use, lower total cost of ownership and improved system performance. With that information in hand, officials researched and evaluated several options before choosing a specific storage-area network.

Secret No. 2: They have a structured process to find and explore new technologies.

A governance process keeps an agency’s technology exploration grounded in core business needs while also addressing security and cost concerns.

Virginia uses a two-track approach. The first one seeks no-cost tools such as Ning that it can deploy quickly. Chopra assigned an emerging-technology leader at the commonwealth’s enterprise applications division to the task. That individual works with other employees involved in Web development to monitor such tools and determine whether they meet a particular business need.

The technology trackers also look into security implications. Virginia policy allows a three-month testing period in which they can launch and evaluate new applications without subjecting them to security rules and regulations. The approach lets the commonwealth rapidly deploy new applications. However, the systems must comply with security regulations after the three-month window expires.

That allows the state to try a new technology, test it and make sure it is the right choice to solve the problem, Chopra said.

The other governance structure guides Virginia’s productivity investment fund, which serves as the commonwealth’s research and development arm. The fund lets Virginia agencies test new approaches — often hinging on emerging technology — that might not make it through the traditional budget process.

Initiatives seeking funding must pass through several gates. An initial review takes place to assess whether the project has a solid business case. Next comes a coaching phase, in which Chopra and Don Jean, a semi-retired Capital One executive, help agencies improve their concepts.

After the coaching phase, a review board consisting of the secretaries of finance, technology and administration has the final say on proposed projects. The board receives guidance from the directors of enterprise applications, human resources, planning and budget, and the Virginia Information Technology Agency.

After the project is under way, Chopra briefs the Council on Virginia’s Future on its progress along with others in the fund portfolio. The council is a public/private partnership that advises the governor and General Assembly. It meets at least twice a year.

Chopra said the governance steps don’t guarantee a project's success, but they do provide systematic management for the 30 projects in the productivity investment fund’s portfolio.

The federal Social Security Administration also is serious about the business of finding new productivity-boosting technologies, said Bill Gray, SSA’s deputy commissioner of systems. The agency operates a technology infusion board that selects five or six promising technologies each year for further investigation.

The board includes representatives from various SSA lines of business in addition to participants from the systems division and other SSA components. The group puts together a small prototype, tests the technology and builds a business case to justify a larger expenditure.

Meanwhile, SSA’s IT Advisory Board decides which initiatives the agency will invest in, generally considering initiatives for the upcoming two fiscal years. The board consists of SSA deputy commissioners.

Any proposed initiative must have a business case and a return on investment, Gray said.

Secret No. 3: They always have the business case nailed if they have to ask for funding.

Successful technology adopters have a couple of tried-and-true ways to impress an investment review board.

“One of the factors that people look at is savings and efficiency for customers,” SSA's Gray said.

In one example, an online application that launched in December cuts the time it takes people to file for retirement benefits to 15 minutes, down from the 40 minutes required with SSA’s previous online system. The updated application employs Web services and service-oriented architecture to cull citizen data from different SSA systems, which speeds the filing process.

The agency already has seen an uptick in the percent of citizens using the online application for retirement filing, rather than applying at an office or by phone. Twenty percent used the old application, and now 38 percent take advantage of the new system, Gray said.

Although a business case can be made based on the customer impact, other justifications include internal and program cost reduction. An example of the latter would be a project that results in savings for the Social Security trust fund.

Chopra pointed to three main business cases among the projects in his commonwealth's productivity investment fund: cost savings, customer service improvement, and the ability to address one of the governor’s key outcome goals.

Fourteen of the 30 projects fall into the cost savings category and are expected to deliver a 4-to-1 return on investment over three years. The nine projects in the customer-service bracket are measured on their reduction of time that constituents spend on transactions with the state. Projects in the key outcomes category address objectives such as reducing the childhood obesity rate.

Secret No. 4: They verify that the technology works.

Will a new technology meet users’ needs? How will it perform on the agency’s network? Early adopters use a testing phase that seeks answers to such questions.

SSA has devised its own testing methodology, tapping the Capability Maturity Model among other sources for inspiration. Gray said any application SSA's systems division undertakes goes through a variety of testing mechanisms. As an initial step, the division works with SSA line-of-business managers and policy employees to document requirements. A peer review obtains input from experts throughout the systems office.

Developers then conduct unit testing on the software modules that are in development and work with the line-of-business and policy side to create test scenarios. Those scenarios are used to test the application against requirements. A validation session determines how well the application meets those requirements and pinpoints areas for improvement, Gray said.

User testing follows. Internal consumers of the application participate in user acceptance testing. For an online application that serves customers, the systems office’s usability center brings in people to work with the new system. As users navigate the application’s screens, developers can identify points of confusion.

“It is a fairly disciplined testing process we go through,” Gray said.

In addition to user testing, organizations also examine an application’s performance, assessing availability and response time. For safety’s sake, this takes place in a test environment that runs parallel to an agency’s production environment. For instance, SSA operates a test environment that models its production environment.

The traditional test setting is hosted internally. But at some point, testing might move to cloud-computing providers.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if [organizations] start...using the cloud as a mechanism to introduce new technologies,” said Phil Cox, principal consultant at SystemExperts, a security consulting firm.

Secret No. 5: They encourage creativity and recognize not all ideas will work.

Innovators know they need more than a safe network to test technology. They also need a fault-tolerant culture that encourages experimentation. This means creating an environment in which those working on solutions “feel OK about failure,” said Gunnar Hellekson, lead architect at Red Hat.

“A physical place and a space in an organization...needs to be carved out where creativity and experimentation can be allowed to flourish,” Hellekson said.

Chopra said state initiatives, including the productivity investment fund, create a space for innovation. “The governor felt strongly that we needed a place to allow agencies to think creatively about how we tackle long-term priorities in the commonwealth,” he said.

“Employees in government have very creative ideas,” he added. “Historically, those ideas have been difficult to surface.”

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Reader comments

Tue, Apr 21, 2009 Sharon

This is an excellent article. More projects, regardless of deliverable(s) owuld be on budget and timeline if they followed these steps - especially #1, a full understanding and definition of the requirements and related processes.

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