Oops. There Goes the Plan

Murphy's Law rules the world. What can go wrong will go wrong. It seems that as soon as you start implementing your hard-won plan, the world shifts-or, at least, your microcosm shifts. For instance, the mayor decides the civic administration should reorganize. A global vendor sells the line of business you just contracted. A key supplier goes bankrupt. So much for the plan.

Actually, thank goodness you do have a plan. At least you have something to alter. Working with no plan does not equate to flexibility. While it may be difficult to change an important underpinning to your plan, most likely the basic thought processes remain valid.

The radical reorganization of government structures has become popular, as politicians and administrators for the past several years have tried to reduce overheads on tax-based services. Reorganizations are traumatic for information technology departments. IT departments can hardly keep up with everyday demands and trends. Then suddenly, reorganization brings additional demands for equipment moves and changes and system modifications that will enable new organizational structures to revamp services.

What is an IT director to do? First, check the business. How much has actually changed in relation to what merely has been shifted around? Can your plan be altered to support essentially the same business needs in a different structure? What has been discarded? Can you trim your plans correspondingly? Most important, go out and talk to the new business leaders. What are their expectations? How can these expectations be woven into the plan?

The reorganization jargon I hear these days indicates a move away from a direct- and support-services model toward an outcomes-based model. Frankly, I hardly perceive the difference. Nevertheless, a good grasp of terminology is important. The result inevitably is a realignment of services to reduce the frustrations caused by the older model.

For example, in a Parks and Recreation Department, the infrastructure aspect of parks may be split from the recreation aspect of programs. They used to be managed together in recognition of the fact that programs took place in parks. Now, the programs may be seen as more aligned with the delivery of community services, and the parks may be seen as a constructed civic infrastructure. The fundamental need supported by technology remains the necessity of booking programs into facilities, although not necessarily into civic facilities. The need for a booking and registration system remains, but the need may have expanded to include other organizations. The IT plan, therefore, will have to be expanded to include strategies on alliances with other organizations.

Governments aren't the only businesses reorganizing. In the IT field, companies buy and sell each other voraciously, always assuring customers that service will be either unaffected or improved. Worse yet, companies with good technology go out of business often because good technologists can make poor managers.

Several years ago, the vendor for an enterprise software package went bankrupt during our installation of its product. We had had intimations of this possibility, but the package selection process had taken about a year and had involved more than 50 people from more than 10 departments. A lot of money had been spent on preparing data, installing hardware and training staff. Sinking those costs was inconceivable at the time.

Recognizing that your plan is sunk takes courage. The plan, after all, is to provide business functionality, not to install particular software. For years, we cautiously stepped through revisions of our plans as another vendor picked up the software and supported its installation. Ever so slowly, however, and despite the rhetoric, we had to recognize that the new vendor regarded the acquired software as a sideline. Its momentum leaked into other projects. New developments were uninspired. Investments were limited to avoid the same quicksand that had led to the original vendor's demise. Finally, with our customers clamoring for business functionality, even more costs were sunk. We started over, sadder but wiser.

Even in the face of great change, your existing plan represents valuable ideas. Finding those portions of the plan that are still valid will provide needed stability. Staff and customers will appreciate some anchors that make transition easier. Rarely does everything change. Usually, one plan can be the stepping stone to--if not the foundation for--another.

Judith Umbach is executive director for the Year 2000 at Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She can be reached at jumbach@home.com.

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