How to fast-track IT modernization projects

A firm deadline, accompanied by executive-level championing from the administrator, empowered staff members to take risks and fast-track processes

Casey Coleman is chief information officer at the General Services Administration.

One room. Sixty people. Eight hours.

Add in a commitment from all involved to come up with an action plan to solve some critical information technology modernization issues — and do it in a time frame that involves weeks, not months or years — and you’ve got a recipe for what we call a “slam.” A slam can be rowdy, polite, colorful, busy, orderly, intense, fast and creative. However, they are all carefully designed and well facilitated, and they are designed to solve a problem that is best solved by working across an agency rather than up and down the agency.

GSA’s Office of the Chief Information Officer was the first to use this revolutionary process under Administrator Martha Johnson’s guidance. We needed to find a way forward to quickly update and modernize several IT systems. So the CIO office's staff came together with other key players at GSA to build coalitions, remove obstacles, gather buy-in and communicate the shared vision to the organization.

The modernization effort kicked off in April, and before the July 4 holiday, we had completed all our established goals. We installed Office 2007 on 14,000 workstations. Leading the employees to make the transition from Office 2003 was a challenge. But training opportunities and extensive agency communications provided agency employees with the tools to successfully make the transition. The slam enabled 90 percent of personnel to use their access cards to log in to their workstations. That upgrade attained our larger goal of eliminating multiple log-ins for enterprise applications.

In addition, the CIO office deployed 4,500 new voice-over-IP phones in our central office and regional offices. We exceeded the goal of deploying 3,000 phones by July 2. That unusually fast turnaround surpassed all initial goals. The office also fortified our virtual private network to five times the capacity we had before Snowmageddon in February. And finally, we upgraded our entire network to the latest technology.

Several key principles made those successes possible and can be used as tools for future projects.

  • Set a deadline and make it possible. One element of our successful completion was the fact that we set an aggressive deadline and stuck to it. Each of the projects defined success as meeting the goals by July 2. We also obtained signed commitments from stakeholders who pledged their support. This deadline compelled the team to act faster, change the project-reporting processes and commit to agile project management. The deadline, combined with executive-level championing from the administrator, empowered staff members to take risks and fast-track processes.
  • Help people work anytime, anywhere. A second contributor to our success was using virtual teams to carry out the work. For instance, we used videoconferencing for regular status update meetings. That enabled leaders, project managers and project teams based in Washington state, California, Texas, Missouri and New Mexico to measure progress.
  • Be collective and collaborative. With the short timeline and high visibility of the projects, we seized the opportunity to implement new ways to be collective and collaborative. Kicking the project off with an event that tapped into GSA’s collective intelligence, we used collaborative tools such as wikis and online workspaces to coordinate and work together.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. One of the most effective components of our IT modernization was communication. We ran a campaign called “Ride the Light” and branded the projects that raised user awareness and acceptance. Consistent and timely communication with a series of products that included electronic newsletters, blog postings, agency announcements and online videos provided everyone with up-to-date progress reports and successful outcomes when completed.

The slam model is being replicated throughout GSA to deal with pressing, timely issues. Soon, what seemed experimental, risky and new will be part of everything we do.


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Reader comments

Mon, Sep 6, 2010 Software Professional DC Metro

The energetic and inclusive fast-track approach outlined by Ms. Coleman is indeed refreshing to hear. Make no mistake, however, that a forklift upgrade of a hard IT asset is anything like the modernization of legacy software applications. Ms. Coleman describes what is typically called a "technical refresh" (upgrading desktops, phones and other hard assets). This is decidedly different than "modernizing" legacy mission critical custom software. Tech refresh happens routinely every 2-4 years across numerous companies/agencies and is predictably managed. A phone is a phone is a phone - it is business process forward compatible - no change in user behavior required. Legacy software "modernization" does not have such frequency (12-25 years being a typical lifespan), has far fewer instances to draw experience from, and each one unique. With software modernization, organizations face a mass of poorly structured business critical operational, analytical, and historical data that must be carried forward, an army of users wed to mature tech and mature process, and decades-in-the-making, complicated program logic, written in languages no longer taught that must be unraveled and recoded. This not to minimize GSA's fast-track achievement, which undoubtedly saved substantial money and time, but we'd be well-served to use standard terminology -- lest someone get the mistaken idea that a few weeks or months is all that is needed to replace that 30 year mature software that runs the agency. Indeed, with the explosion in lightweight, user-friendly web2.0 tooling, the perception that mission critical software is "easy" is already too rampant.

Fri, Aug 20, 2010 Casey

Sean, thanks for the kind remarks. The roots of this success go back a few years, when GSA consolidated its infrastucture. Common services like helpdesk, email, local support, device management, etc., were consolidated from 39 contracts to one. With that kind of big change, we thought it was important to visit all the customers (about 20 town hall meetings) to see how the change affected them and how we could improve. As a result of the customer comments and some focus group studies, we put together the modernization plan, focusing on the most impactful stuff first. I don't know that there is anything remarkable in all that, but I do highly recommend listening to customers and building a plan with them and their input. Support from the boss helps, too. :)

Fri, Aug 20, 2010 Sean DC

Thanks for sharing your success story. You obviously have the talent and drive to make things happen at GSA. One important point you glossed over is that you had a clear plan for modernization before attempting to implement (VOIP phones, access cards and Office upgrade). Often CIOs have a vision, but no clear plan to make their vision a reality. Perhaps you have some advice on creating a roadmap and prioritizing initiatives for modernizing the infrastructure. Many readers could gain from that knowledge as well.

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