IT 101 in Oregon

Everyone these days seems to be aware that information technology is becoming

the backbone in government plans to improve and extend services. Still,

many agency executives charged with implementing those plans have a woeful

lack of understanding of technology and its place in modern business practices.

Governments might look to Oregon for ideas on how to fix that. To educate

its executives about IT, the state recently began a six-session "21st Century

Government" training program that officials hope will go a long way in broadening

technology expertise.

Educating officials was one of the issues identified in Oregon's 1998 enterprise

IT strategy, said Don Mazziotti, the state's chief information officer.

"The chief technology person in private industry generally wants to

be the "high priest' of technology, and they look to create a codependent

relationship with other executives in the organization," he said. But that's

not a healthy model for government to copy, he said, particularly when it

comes to interactions on the business side of an organization. "As e-government

and e-commerce become staples of governments, it's important that we not

have technocrats dispensing knowledge," he said.

Oregon's Information Resources Management Division spent six months

meeting with agency executives to find out what kind of technology information

they felt would be of most use. Then IRMD spent another few months designing

a curriculum and putting it through dry runs.

The result was a series of three-hour sessions held every other week.

Up to 30 people at a time participated in a comprehensive set of presentations

that covered the basics of current technologies — such as what an application

service provider does and the difference between a mainframe and the client/server

model of computing. The majority of the time, however, is taken up with

management and business issues associated with technology.

Mary Neidig, director of the state's Department of Consumer and Business

Services (DCBS), and one of the first executives to take the training course,

said it's important because of the need for increased coordination on projects

between agencies. And she said leaders need to know how to gauge the differences

between agencies' systems.

"We've been doing projects fairly independent of other agencies up to

now," she said, "but as we go forward, there's going to be more and more

emphasis on working together, and there will be an increasing need not to

embark on things that don't fit in the big picture. There'll be a greater

need for an understanding of statewide goals."

That will come down to an understanding of such things as return on

investment and how the ROI for a DCBS system fits into this overall picture.

"I come from the private sector, where ROI is based on future product sales,"

Neidig said, "so such things as valuing projects, which was one of the things

presented in the training sessions, was new for me. But now I think we have

better tools to judge the payoff of our projects and a way to take a better

argument to the legislature when we ask for funding."

Although expertise differs among agency executives, Julie Pearson, manager

of Oregon's Statewide Technical Education Program Services, says most of

them don't really know technology or what developments are occurring. That

puts them at a disadvantage even in their own organizations, she said, because

as technology becomes more important for agencies, executives need to align

more closely with their IT people.

"It's not necessarily a one-way thing," Pearson said. "One of the things

that CIOs in other agencies have suggested is that business- oriented people

need to know about technology and IT people need to know more about the

business side of things. We do have classes on these issues for the IT people,

but we've had nothing for the executives before now."

The six-session series will be held once every quarter, with the next

to begin Jan. 4 and run through Mar. 15 at a cost of $1,125 per person.

Each of the first five sessions comprises a lecture of up to two hours,

with the last hour or so left to questions and answers. The final session

— aimed at fitting the lessons of the first five sessions into the specific

expectations of the Oregon plan — is a give-and-take between session participants

and a panel of state agency heads.

After the first series that ended late last year, Pearson feels future

sessions will become less formal and more interactive. There's also the

possibility of producing Web-based programs as a way to provide continuing

education for session participants, she said.

Although acceptance of the need for this type of training varies throughout

the Oregon government — Mazziotti says it will take some time to convince

all the agencies' management about its worth — some are convinced that the

knowledge that courses impart will be readily absorbed into agency operations.

According to Neidig, for example, in her department IT is not considered

separate from other issues.

"Among the 12 group leaders we have in the DCBS, there is an understanding

that we need to have this knowledge about IT," she said. "In fact, IT is

one of the three initiatives we have under examination by our executive

team. There is an expectation that I and others involved in the training

sessions will be active in establishing the culture in the DCBS that IT

is important."

A part of the discussion DCBS executives are having is how to monitor

performance within the department and how to move ahead toward doing that

electronically. Before the technology training program, it was not possible

to have that kind of discussion, she said, so the training has helped to

set in place "a higher level of debate and expectation on what needs to

be done to move things forward."

However, what might ultimately win executives over is an argument familiar

to all government department managers. Given the fact that large government

departments are spending a lot of money on technology, Mazziotti said, senior

executives will need to know what technology is all about. If they don't,

they will find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to asking- legislatures

for funding.

Understanding that, Mazziotti said, is "really not that difficult."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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