The Virtues of Thinking Big

The short history of the information technology industry is filled with big initiatives that fell short or fell flat. The most dramatic changes usually have been the product not of grand schemes but of serendipitous events that overtook the schemes and the schemers.

But state officials at the National Association of State Information Resource Executives annual conference, held in Indianapolis in October, demonstrated that if we learn from failures, thinking big can be a virtue, not a vice.

A NASIRE-led initiative to develop a criminal justice "information architecture" is a case in point. This project, funded by a grant from the U.S. Justice Department, aims to develop a strategy to enable agencies across all levels of government to share information electronically.

Anyone familiar with the sorry history of "open" industry standards is likely to blanch at such a grand vision. Over the past decade, segments of the IT industry have attempted to define a common "language," with limited success. For example, communications vendors invested heavily to support the Open Systems Interconnect standards, only to see customers opt for TCP/IP and related technologies.

But the NASIRE team seems to have absorbed those lessons. The team aims to specify, rather than define, industry standards, working with a relatively small group of existing and emerging standards that already have widespread support.

The strategy is designed to be easy and inexpensive, yet could work on a large scale should the project catch on. It's the best of all scenarios: low risk with potential for a big payoff.

North Carolina, meanwhile, is trying to pull off developing an electronic commerce strategy that seems ambitious but may be conservative at heart.

Like many states, North Carolina aims to provide an array of government services electronically, such as enabling citizens to go on the Internet to apply for licenses or permits or to file taxes. But rather than approach e-commerce piecemeal, as many states are doing, North Carolina plans to put in place a common set of systems, services and security measures that individual agencies can build on.

Setting up the systems to support this vision will involve a lot of upfront work, with the potential for costly and time-consuming technical difficulties.

Still, the risk of this "grand design" may be somewhat less than the alternative because it removes the need for each agency to assume the costs and risks of the work. The state also can enforce standards of performance and presentation upfront, rather than after the fact.

These and other initiatives discussed at the NASIRE conference reflect some hard-won lessons. There is no guarantee that these projects will succeed, but CIOs are on the right track when they can recognize and mitigate the risks of thinking big without compromising the possible gains.

John Stein Monroe



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