Farr the reformer talks Defence

Summary:A year from taking on perhaps the toughest IT job in the country, Defence chief information officer Greg Farr is staring down the barrel of a massive ICT reform agenda for 2009 that will reveal whether Defence got the "expert CIO" they needed.

2009: the year of reform
Fortunately for Farr, the winds of change appear to be blowing his way. "There is an appetite within Defence for reform," he says. "With that will and desire [for reform] I think we're halfway there. What we have to do now is get a tight, disciplined process to pull it off."

In broad terms, Farr says he wants to simplify how Defence handles technology, but acknowledges that the scope for simplification may be limited in the department. "The things we can make simple — the stuff we can treat as commodity IT — we should treat as commodity. But for some of it we're not able to," he says.

Troops in Afghanistan
(Credit: Captain Al Green, Dept of Defence)

"We have people deployed in 28 countries," he explains, "with big operations and particular needs for those deployed people, and the connectivity with satellite and landline back to Australia. I mean, some of it is just inherently complex, but we simplify where we can."

Farr spent considerable time within Defence last year drumming up support for, and outlining how it should go about, ICT reform. His vision entails Defence segregating technology support into four functions: intelligence, war fighter, corporate and infrastructure.

In terms of outsourcing, he has marked out Defence's terrain similarly to that bestowed upon the ATO when it restructured its $1.8 billion in contracts: distributed computing, centralised computing and terrestrial communication.

The ultimate goal, however, is to achieve the holy grail of Defence IT: the Single Defence Information Environment (DIE), which aims to unify Defence's technology and information systems under a single and coherent domain — something that proved to be beyond the reach of his predecessors.

Nonetheless, there are early signs that Defence could be turning over a new leaf with Farr at the helm. For the first time, it has employed a chief technology officer whose sole purpose is to design an architecture and business process to support a unified technology front.

Late last year Defence nabbed its new chief technology officer (CTO), Matt Yannopoulos from the ATO — also Farr's right-hand man while he headed up the ATO's $724 million Change Agenda.

Yannopoulos, a man who, according to Farr, also thrives on the challenge of simplifying Defence's complex systems, will design Defence's enterprise architecture, as well as its information and communications technology standards, strategy and investments.

But while high-level reform appears to be Defence's greatest priority, the agency's day-to-day operational requirements remain a challenge, in part because, as Farr admits, the state of Defence's technology is "mixed".

"There is certainly some fragility, but in the day-to-day stuff, obviously we put lots of effort into supporting our deployed forces and that correctly gets our highest priority.

"But when we get around some of the infrastructure, some of the networks around Australia, there is some work we have to do to consolidate it, to standardise it and to refresh it so that it's giving all people in Defence the ICT support they need," he says.

And then there is Defence's sluggish procurement habits. It was an annoyance Farr wanted to fix at the outset, but one that may prove difficult to change given the fear of failure deeply rooted within Defence culture.

"We've been able to make some significant improvements, but [technology procurement] is still not quick enough. We need to be able to field ICT solutions in much quicker time than we're currently doing at the moment," he says, echoing his own comments a year ago.

Failure and the dark side of success
Few people enjoy failure and the risk of public embarrassment. But is failure something that needs to be feared as it has in the past in Defence, or, as Farr believes, can it be a useful tool to recognise when it's time to abandon a sinking ship?

"I think there is a level of risk aversion [in Defence] which is why we go through these long processes — to avoid risk — whereas the best way to avoid risk in many cases is to get it fielded quickly and cheaply," he says.

"If it's wrong, admit it early and move on, rather than trying to justify it."

In fact, failure and the ability to admit it can be a good thing, according to Farr. "That's how you get innovation in IT. You do things. Try it. If it doesn't work, abandon it. Someone once said to me: 'If you're gonna fail, fail early and fail cheap'."

Someone once said to me: 'If you're gonna fail, fail early and fail cheap'.

Defence CIO Greg Farr

However, at a project's outset, when a team sits down to discuss what it is they really want from it, Farr's focus is not failure but getting people to imagine greatness. The approach is meant to get people to think about the outcome, rather than getting bogged down in technical details that may or may not address the purpose of a project.

"The question I ask internally is: 'OK, we've delivered this project. If this is the best in the universe, what does that look like?' That's so we start with that end point," he says.

The "back to front" approach was applied when the ATO restructured its outsourcing contracts. "Instead of spending years specifying things down to a high degree, you want to be able to field it very quickly and then say, 'Is it something you really want, is it something we can evolve or are we on the wrong track?'" Farr says.

These questions will be asked several times over the next year as Defence begins to execute its ICT reform agenda, whatever that turns out to be. The first concrete project though to test Farr's competence and approach is likely to be the release of what could be the largest government tenders of the year — the $400 million overhaul of Defence's PeopleSoft-based HR system, PMKeyS, which Farr has previously labelled "less than perfect".

What you won't hear CIO Group saying under Farr's leadership is "you can't do this or that", he says. Rather, he wants the business group to first understand what it is they want at a design level before IT gets involved.

"I don't think the IT will be the hard part of this," says Farr.

Topics: CXO, Government, Government : AU


Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, s... Full Bio

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