As Delaware begins work this year on a $70 million upgrade to its statewide financial system, state CIO Tom Jarrett is confident changes he made to address troubled projects of long ago will pay off and keep IT in better alignment with internal customers.

Jarrett, who became CIO in 2001, said the Department of Technology and Information (DTI) was created seven years ago "because of the failures of the previous organization, which had a poor reputation for completing projects."

One example is an 800 MHz first-responder radio network project. Jarrett believes the previous IT organization began the deployment without clearly understanding who their customers were. "They didn't include any first responders in the development process. The attitude was, 'We're technologists - we know what's best.'"

After deployment, the first responders were unhappy that the radios didn't work everywhere they should have, as well as other unsatisfactory features, he said. Poor communication with the Delaware Legislature contributed to the problem because it was more difficult to get additional funding.

Jarrett made two structural alterations he considers significant. First he established a customer care center staffed with seven people assigned to develop expertise on the business process needs of specific agencies. "I don't know all the nuances of what the Department of Youth and Families needs," he said, "but this customer relationship specialist is charged with doing just that. Then that person is a champion for that customer when we look at what types of solutions might address their business problems, instead of us trying to push some technology on them that might in no way address their issues."

Second, he created a change management team to help agencies cope with the disruptions new technologies can cause. "You have to take the time to help employees through that change," Jarrett said. "Otherwise you get naysayers who start complaining that the system doesn't work. The technology gets a bad rap. If we don't help them learn how to use it, we're swimming upstream."

The Delaware DTI took a different approach when it upgraded the radio system to add in-street and in-building coverage. "We established a project team that brought in the users from day one," Jarrett said, adding that they played a significant role in reviewing the technology, vendors and costs. Jarrett said the state budget office and Legislature were kept in the loop.

Path to Alignment

For years, CIOs have sought to closely coordinate IT projects and overall strategy with business processes, yet progress toward that overarching goal has been slow. In a recent Public CIO survey, executives still list IT-business alignment as their No. 1 IT management concern.

Alignment may boil down to a few basic problems: poor nuts-and-bolts project management, a weak governance structure or a more serious and systemic disconnect in long-term strategic planning. The CIOs and analysts interviewed for this article described formalizing project management, developing IT strategic plans that match their agencies' goals, and beefing up governance structures and metrics to ensure their projects meet or exceed business users' expectations.

Projects rarely fail because the technology doesn't work. One common pitfall, however, is the translation of user requirements into system features.

"Getting true integration of business domain knowledge into IT systems is the toughest nut to crack," said Robin Portman, a vice president with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) who works with federal health agencies. Some business users come up with requirement definitions and throw them over the wall to IT, she said, but business owners must learn to make their needs comprehensible. "For instance, I work with clinicians, doctors and nurses. They know their craft inside and out. But when they start listing requirements, they can get into so much detail that it makes it more difficult for IT to produce what they want," she said.

BAH developed methodologies to help users represent what they want and modeling techniques to help IT people explain what they've heard.

"We ask IT to establish a model with an implementation-agnostic view," Portman said, meaning that IT should be able to draw up a definition of the business requirements that is not tainted by a predetermined view of which tools to use.

Portman recalled a 2007 engagement at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which was going though a rocky implementation of an Oracle enterprise resource planning system to streamline and automate purchasing and warehouse management. After interviewing users, BAH consultants believed the deployment had been driven too much by the technology team, so when the system was rolled out, NIH experienced unanticipated problems, such as backlogs and data conversion issues from previous systems.

"We don't bring in IT guys; we bring in an operations team with supply-chain management experience," Portman said. The team meets with stakeholders and managers to dig for the root causes and to hammer out solutions, which may include more software training for users. Portman said some large IT projects go off the rails if midcourse corrections aren't made. It can help to bring in an impartial third party to review assumptions about whether the software is matching up with business processes. "When you are working so closely on a project," she said, "you can be guilty of drinking your own bathwater."

A similar financial software change forced Kim Heldman, CIO of the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), to make organizational changes last year.

CDOT began an SAP implementation in summer 2005 and went live in November 2006. Heldman said that soon after she took the CIO post in April 2007, "it was evident that we didn't have the best support structure going forward considering what a big change this had been."

She brought in consultants to analyze business processes and research best practices. "We decided to create a business process resource center in tandem with our technology resource center," Heldman explained. The center is staffed with 12 business process experts who bridge the gap between business users and IT. For instance, one person might have specific knowledge of how CDOT does accounting and how that applies to SAP. They meet with the IT team on a regular basis to determine priorities.

With the heavy lifting on the SAP implementation completed, Heldman is hoping to turn that project's steering committee into a broader IT management team to guide overall policy and foster integrated IT planning.

Emphasis on Governance

Toni Jelinek knew she was facing alignment problems three years ago when she took the CIO position in Hennepin County, Minnesota's most populous county. Minneapolis is the county seat.

"We had a centralized IT organization to serve the whole county," she said, "yet the departments had set up their own internal IT shops because they weren't getting what they wanted from centralized IT."

The first thing she did was begin a strategic planning process because she realized a renewed emphasis on governance was necessary. "We didn't address technology so much as how we want to run IT."

IT and departmental business leaders decided that centralized IT would become a shared services department that provides common functionality to all agencies; IT staff embedded in departments would stay there, led by project leaders called "business information officers" who report to the business line and Jelinek.

The business information officers also sit on a newly established technology steering committee, but Jelinek admitted that process still needs refinement. "Originally I had envisioned one big happy family all working together, but it's taking some time to get there," she said. "We have people talking to each other about projects, but we also still have surprises crop up that indicate the communication is not as good as it should be. We still have people feeling that they are autonomous."

Catching Trouble Early

At the federal level, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has made an effort to create reporting structures that help measure IT alignment.

"Just adhering to these structures helps CIOs leverage the reporting functions, such as capital planning and investment management, to force discussions about the value of IT projects," said Erik Garr, a partner in Chicago-based Diamond Management and Technology Consulting.

"It has forced CIOs to have these strategic discussions. If they don't, OMB will let them know about it."

Daniel Mintz, CIO of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), said a new centralized project management office lets his team catch issues early and put troubled projects back on track. "We felt a need to develop clear, repeatable processes that we can learn how to measure," he said.

Mintz cited as an example the Federal Aviation Administration Telecommunications Infrastructure project, a huge multiyear undertaking to replace legacy telecommunications systems that fell behind schedule and ran into management problems. "We did a program review, adjusted the project management team and worked on changes with the contractor," he said.

Now the project is back on track. That review has become the model for how DOT's project management office works. "We use stoplight charts and metrics to focus on problem areas before they become serious," he explained.

DOT's project management office is using a technique called earned value management, which allows it to measure the progress of projects. For instance, a one-year project with a $1 million budget might be halfway to completion in six months, but what if it has spent 80 percent of the budgeted money? "We are setting up an approach to track all aspects of the project from initiation so that doesn't happen," Mintz said.

On the governance front, Mintz works to get the business side of DOT's operating administrations focused on IT investments early in the process. "Previously they were involved in yes/no decision-making after the planning had already been done," he said. "We had to change that dialog and get them involved in the planning." Mintz also meets monthly with a council of CIOs from all of the DOT's operating administrations to review IT investments that cut across the whole department.

Another focus is building a stronger relationship with the chief financial officer's office. "Typically the IT project planning and budget planning were on separate cycles," Mintz said. "We have developed a more integrated approach to work together on each step."

The final piece of the puzzle is better performance measurement. "This ties everything together," Mintz said. "If there is a disconnect between business goals and IT goals, it's in part because we don't measure the last step of the project: Did it succeed?"

Mintz said his office will participate in an OMB-led performance officers' council, which is being established to create a common vocabulary across the federal government for measuring how IT projects meet goals.

Michael Bartell, CIO of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is leading what he calls an IT transformation, in part by creating a CIO Council made up of 10 senior-level business executives who meet with him monthly.

"It's been critical for me," he said. "It's helped our organization to be more customer-oriented, and it's a great body to bounce ideas off of."

In addition to creating a project management office, Bartell conducts quarterly portfolio reviews with the CIO Council to assess the progress, risks, schedules and costs of all ongoing projects.

The council also helps customers understand IT costs, he said. "Often you'll hear complaints about IT because people say they don't know where the money goes. And IT is expensive," Bartell explained. "We try to use the CIO Council to break down that perception by being totally transparent with the IT budget."

John Kost, managing vice president of Gartner Public Sector Research and former Michigan CIO, is a proponent of forcing business executives to spend time prioritizing IT projects. He said the key to governance is that it should not be left to IT people. "You need to get business and political leaders involved in prioritizing IT projects and understanding the tradeoffs each one represents," he said. "The CIO should not be forced to make those decisions arbitrarily, and in a large organization, having a group of IT leaders from each department come together to make these decisions isn't good enough either."

Bartell aligns his IT strategic planning process with the FDIC's overall plans. He sensed that the FDIC's previous IT strategic plans were project-focused and tactical rather than strategic and IT-centric.

As the FDIC laid out road maps of business processes, the IT team drilled down to see where the gaps are in data and applications supporting those missions. "We are taking a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach to see if there are parts of those applications that are duplicative and can be reused," he said. The exciting thing for Bartell is that the business side has bought into the SOA approach already. "We are in lockstep on it."

David Raths  |  contributing writer