Every new technology will inevitably present challenges for government CIOs. At best, these challenges are pure technology problems, like modernizing an old platform to something less expensive to maintain or deploying newer versions of existing applications. Issues of control, culture change and the possibility of unintended consequences resulting from the change are minimal.
New consumer technology that end users adopt for personal use, and then insist they must use it in the workplace, present more complex challenges. In addition to the technical challenge, the relationship between IT and its end users is placed under pressure. Users want more control, demand faster results, and create greater security challenges than ever before.
While difficult to manage, most government IT professionals reacted quickly to this transformational technology change and are successfully working through these issues rather than ignoring or fighting back against the inevitable. During my four years as the CIO of Florida, I dealt with some of these trends such as migrating our state’s critical systems to the cloud, consolidating data centers, and promoting security-as-a-service platforms.
As challenging as transformational technology change may be, every decade or so there emerges a new “invasive technology” that has great disruptive potential, but its consequences are not obvious.
Invasive behavior is well understood in many disciplines, especially those that deal with complex systems like the natural environment, where introducing a new plant into an existing ecosystem risks changing that landscape forever. Two years ago I planted a single sprig of mint in our herb garden, but by the following year it spread throughout the garden. Removing it was a lot of work but restored balance in the garden. This year, however, the mint re-emerged and I realized that it would take rebuilding the garden before we regained control. Beyond debating whether this mint was a beneficial herb or an invasive weed, the truth is I hadn’t proactively managed that environment.
So how does a government CIO balance the risk of embracing new technologies with the risk of becoming increasingly less relevant to the business if these technologies are not adopted?
More than a decade ago, I watched many government CIOs attempt to manage technology-savvy end users who were using desktop office software to create and run their own applications unbeknownst to their IT staffs. Soon their co-workers caught on and either created their own applications or wanted access to someone else’s. While connections across networks multiplied and databases became corrupted, IT staffs were faced with a larger problem; these applications were now important to the agency and could not be easily taken away.
Yes, you could hire programmers to convert the most important applications onto more manageable and scalable platforms, but you could not put the genie back in the bottle once users had access to a tool that allowed them to solve their own business problems. Alternatively, if a government CIO or IT staff takes a very conservative approach to implementing the latest technology, then innovation is stifled and the business as a whole suffers as today’s digital enterprise is being driven more than ever by new cloud, big data and mobile technologies.
In my mind, the best approach to managing new technology is a calculated strategy that balances both innovation and risk. In today’s marketplace there are plenty of technologies that enable a CIO to hit this middle ground. I see application-platform-as-a-service (APaaS) technology as an effective solution for government CIOs who want to balance the risks of user development with the need to maintain control of the IT environment.
APaaS is a tool that combines a database with rapid application creation functionality that requires no programing knowledge. Further, APaaS lives in the cloud and only a browser is required. There is no software to install, no local traffic on the network, and no help desk interaction. It can be invisible to the unaware IT department.
Another great advantage of APaaS applications over conventional development is dramatically reduced maintenance costs. One reason that government IT departments are reluctant to develop new business applications is that every new application requires additional IT maintenance. Eventually, simply supporting the existing applications takes all of the available IT resources. APaaS can break this cycle, offloading much of the subsequent application changes directly to the business users, and all the application platform support is handled as part of the APaaS subscription.
Business users can create applications with APaaS that they desire when that need cannot be fulfilled by their IT department in a timely manner, but the risk here is not that these applications will create a support nightmare for IT departments. I believe the real risk is that unless IT departments embrace and leverage this new technology for themselves, they will become increasingly irrelevant to the business in the area of small to mid-tier application development.
Disruptive technology like APaaS, while a risk if ignored, presents a great opportunity to IT professionals who embrace the change. APaaS suites will allow IT professionals to produce the applications a government agency needs in days or weeks rather than in months and years. There is no need for business users to develop it themselves if their IT staff will do it for them, all in record time.
APaaS technologies, like mint, can be a remedy or a noxious weed. It all depends on how you decide to manage them.
David W. Taylor is vice president of State, Local and Provincial Solutions for Software AG, and the former CIO of Florida.