Fisher searches for the optimal organization

New transformation director brings Silicon Valley innovation to DOD’s bureaucracy

Different worlds is how David Fisher compares his past life as a Silicon Valley management consultant with his new role as director of the Business Transformation Agency, the Defense Department’s lead agency for organizational change.

Fisher and Paul Brinkley, deputy undersecretary of Defense for business transformation, created BTA according to management principles they developed when they worked together in California in the private sector. Now they are discovering how those ideas play out at DOD, one of the world’s largest enterprises.

Fisher and Brinkley go back to the 1990s tech boom when Brinkley, an executive at JDS Uniphase, was Fisher’s BearingPoint client. The two worked closely for four years to lead one of the largest, most rapid business transformation efforts in the technology industry sector. They integrated 40 acquired companies in less than 18 months.

When the tech boom went bust, Fisher switched to public-sector work and moved his family to Washington, D.C., about the same time Brinkley entered the government. Within a year, they were working together again. In 2005, when DOD created BTA, Brinkley and Thomas Modly, deputy undersecretary of Defense for financial management, were asked to lead the new organization, and Fisher joined the team.

Brinkley and “I used to sit in his office and talk politics all the time and wonder, ‘What if we were in Washington,’ ” Fisher said. Now faced with the challenges of business modernization, Fisher realizes he isn’t in Silicon Valley anymore.

On the surface, the challenges appear similar: applying enterprise capabilities, setting standards and building integrated architectures, for example. But DOD’s management principles are different from Silicon Valley’s, he said. And what works for a $4 billion organization doesn’t scale well in a $120 billion enterprise such as the Army.

The government also doesn’t have a profit motive to enforce accountability and measure success, so developing metrics is a huge challenge, Fisher said. DOD uses milestones to measure program progress, but it’s not the same. “You can be on time and on budget and not transform anything,” he said.

In his 2004 book, “Optimize Now or Else!” Fisher expresses strong views about how IT has been mistakenly venerated as the salvation for business transformation. Organizations modernize by changing processes, and technology is simply the enabler, he argues in the book.

“Traditional IT is one of the problems itself,” and it must be changed, Fisher wrote. He still maintains that it’s a mistake for organizations to have their IT departments lead business transformation. Fisher wrote that organizations should eliminate the role of the chief information officer, which he described as “totally ineffective.” CIOs are IT people untrained for leading management reform. Even CIOs who are business savvy rarely have the necessary clout, he said.

Fisher’s book called for a new type of executive — whom he calls a chief process and information officer — to lead a similarly named new department. The CPIO would develop basic standards, garner top-level support and then enforce compliance throughout the ranks.

The CPIO would have senior-level authority over changing the organization. Although it isn’t exactly the same position as a chief management officer for DOD — a position that Comptroller General David Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, says is needed — Fisher said they’re very similar concepts.

In many ways, BTA has become the CPIO department Fisher envisioned. BTA has a role in reforming 26 DOD programs, and it’s expanding its mission to include fundamental business analysis and reform of contracting practices in Iraq.

BTA has instituted an investment review board that vets IT investments departmentwide and can withhold funds for projects that don’t comply with BTA’s standards. Its function closely conforms to that of the fictional CPIO department in Fisher’s book.

BTA is following his book’s strategy of racking up quick successes to build credibility and momentum for the long haul by setting incremental, achievable goals. Fisher, for example, was instrumental in defining and codifying data and reporting standards for DOD’s financial-management community. He narrowed the scope of the project, Standard Financial Information Structure, so that it could produce a usable set of definitions in six weeks.

When asked if DOD could ever become the optimal enterprise that he envisions, Fisher said, “No one can become the optimal enterprise. What we’re trying to do is move it in the right direction.”
The David Fisher FilePosition: Director of the Defense Department’s Business Transformation Agency.

Career highlights:
Spent eight years as a radio sportscaster, at first broadcasting football, baseball and basketball games at Stanford University. He went on to cover sporting events as a radio personality in Arizona, Iowa and California before leaving the sports world for the business community. He worked his way up to become a managing director at BearingPoint in Palo Alto, Calif., and Washington, D.C., before joining the government.

Holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from Stanford University. He later completed a master’s in business administration at Santa Clara University, where he received the dean’s award for perfect grades.

At the beginning of his business career, Fisher attended a convention where then-retired Gen. Colin Powell gave a speech on public service and personal activism. After that, Fisher said, he knew he wanted to move to Washington, D.C., “to
make a difference.”

Lives in Maryland with his wife and two young children.


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