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From fighting fires to shaping the future: 4 steps to IT modernization

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There’s no doubt that IT modernization is essential to reducing costs, improving security and optimizing outcomes. Yet plenty of questions remain about where and how to start. Too often, answers come in the form of firefighting -- systems are doused with modernization when they’re “on fire” or fail.  

While it’s important to maintain a sense of urgency, rushing modernization efforts can lead agencies to repeat past mistakes and miss opportunities. A better approach to creating a clear strategy is outlining a clear, actionable path forward, grounded in enhanced customer experience upgrades and recognizable improvements in major program operations and service delivery.

Experience points to four essential steps to creating an effective strategy:

Step 1: Create a baseline. When agency CIOs inherit large, complex and opaque environments it can be challenging to determine which systems are modernization priorities. Application Portfolio Management, which combines benchmarking and analysis of the current state, can help. In addition to evaluating system health and performance, APM often uncovers system interdependencies that span across the portfolio. It also helps uncover “shadow IT” and other program-maintained applications.

Leading with APM enables a more complete understanding of current strategies, drivers, commitments and liabilities -- all of which are essential for more effective planning. Additionally, it provides tangible talking points to support cost-versus-value discussions between IT and the business.

Step 2: Define a mission-driven strategy. IT environments don’t operate in a vacuum. Systems and applications are closely tied to the business operations, services and processes they support. In fact, they move in concert with each other -- making it crucial that a proposed modernization strategy earn the full backing of the business.

That backing won’t come through technical benefits alone. Program leaders will want to know about the business dividends of modernization, and CIOs must be prepared to educate executive management on the strategic goals of their proposed modernization programs. Explain how improved agility, more-actionable insight and lower total cost of ownership can impact leadership’s ability to meet mission goals by using APM data to highlight current constraints and illustrate future objectives.

As much as possible, agencies should create a joint strategy for simultaneously modernizing not just IT systems but also the business processes they power. (My colleagues and I have created a playbook that details a “hot list” of issues likely to draw the attention of senior decisionmakers.) Emphasize the value of simplification, consolidation and standardization -- and consider introducing human-centered design or service design as frameworks for integrating user requirements consistently across the customer journey.

Step 3: Build the roadmap. Once armed with stakeholder input and buy-in for individual requirements and overall priorities, CIOs can transform application gap analysis into actionable modernization roadmaps. Modernization can take many shapes financially and technically. Some of the most common options include rearchitecting, remediating or refactoring legacy systems to deliver more modern performance and interoperability; re-platforming systems from high-cost hardware to cloud-ready platforms; replacing systems with new COTS, SaaS or custom applications; or simply retiring systems that no longer have value to the agency.

When modernizing monolithic legacy systems, consider a hybrid strategy -- with critical capabilities layered in near term while working to unlock core business data, logic and rules for use in new applications. Using application discovery tools, CIOs can identify and map “black box” functionality for easier export and use.

To determine which systems to modernize and when, weigh the potential impact or benefits -- cost savings, improved performance and/or better cyber hygiene -- against project complexity and, by extension, cost, time requirements and risk. It may make sense to pursue a two-track strategy where the primary focus is advancing the mission with more agile, transformative capabilities while lowering long-term sustainment and operational costs. As a secondary focus, consider chartering a dedicated team to pursue quick-win opportunities that deliver rapid ROI by rationalizing and retiring redundant systems.

A two-track strategy lets agencies pursue and provision each objective appropriately -- ensuring that tactical cost savings don’t come at the expense of more strategic objectives.

Step 4: Organize for success. When it comes to long-term, sustainable success, how you execute is as important as how you build. Scale and industrialize efforts by creating dedicated teams and centers of excellence for core aspects of IT modernization. Adopt agile and other iterative approaches to help manage risk -- especially when looking to migrate static implementations to very dynamic cloud environments. And, ensure strong governance with active participation of business stakeholders to ensure forward momentum and alignment with the mission.

Although it may be impossible to eradicate modernization “fires,” agencies are wise to focus resources on crafting a more thoughtful, proactive approach. These four steps will help agencies craft a strategy that empowers them to stretch limited funding -- and to maximize the technical and mission benefits of modernization.

About the Author

Dave McClure, Ph.D., is a leader of transformational IT initiatives at Accenture Federal Services. In this capacity, he oversees future-focused client projects that include cloud computing adoption, digital transformation, IT modernization, cloud security and creative customer-focused web design.

Before joining Accenture in 2017, McClure led the design and implementation of FedRAMP, the federal security authorization process for cloud computing products and services and the most significant security authorization process of its kind worldwide. He was a chief strategist of cybersecurity at Coalfire Federal/Veris Group, in which capacity he worked extensively with both government and commercial enterprises.

McClure’s long IT experience in both the public and private sectors includes executive stints at Gartner Group, the Council for Excellence in Government, the US General Services Administration and the US Government Accountability Office.

A University of Texas at Austin graduate, McClure has a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of North Texas. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, and is the Past Executive chair and current Executive Committee member of the Industry Advisory Council (IAC).


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