Gov't CIO interview: Success, failure, and innovation

Listen to this podcast to learn more about CIO issues, government projects, and innovative thinking about success on large-scale IT initiatives.

Information technology projects in the state and federal government tend to be large, complicated, and expensive. Effective collaboration and cross-boundary communication are key drivers of success for these large projects.

Certain programs mandated by the government, such as electronic medical records and health information exchange, are particularly susceptible to failure induced by poor communication and collaboration across information silos.

Although the scale and scope of these initiatives makes them particularly risky, the challenges are ultimately similar to those faced by many projects in the private sector. For this reason, large government projects offer a useful means for understanding drivers of success and failure at all levels of IT.

To examine challenges facing large-scale government IT, I spoke at length with Rick Howard, who is CIO for Oregon's Department of Human Services, which is the largest department in that state. He manages an annual budget and oversees a staff of almost 400 people. 

Rick is an articulate CIO who recognizes that the evolving nature of IT requires new tools to complement traditional project management techniques. Following our first conversation, Rick sent me an article he wrote for State Tech magazine, describing limitations of traditional approaches in today's complex project environment:

Planning and implementing a regional health information exchange is among the most complex IT projects a state agency can undertake. These projects cut across organizational boundaries that often represent competing or divergent interests. The sheer number of stakeholders and the extensive policy, regulatory and technical considerations — combined with the need to provide immediate access to sensitive health information while maintaining patient privacy and confidentiality — poses a demanding set of governance issues....

The risk profile of complex and expensive interoperability projects will be reduced when key areas such as governance, collaboration readiness and business technology and architecture are accurately assessed, and strategies for improvement are devised.

Reading this article and talking with Rick, it quickly became apparent that his perspective on IT value, success, and failure accords with the body of thought expressed in posts throughout this blog.

Perhaps more important than any other single point, Rick and I discussed obstacles to achieving success in today's cross-boundary project environment. One key success factor: measuring and analyzing organizational, governance, collaboration, and human-centered data cultivated directly from project stakeholders and participants.

Subsequent conversations with Rick reinforced my view that large-scale government projects offer an excellent training ground for understanding issues and challenges facing private sector projects. Lessons learned from government IT initiatives can have direct application to the private sector.

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Here are key excerpts from our podcast conversation, which you can hear by clicking the player at this top of this post. These are edited and interpreted comments rather than transcripts.

Listen to this podcast to learn more about CIO issues, government projects, and innovative thinking about success on large-scale IT initiatives.

On interoperability:

In a world of shifting and undefined standards, technology is very hard and risky. The need for privacy and secure networks means that technical interoperability must occur at the system level.

However, cross-boundary initiatives also need interoperability at the policy and management practice levels. To achieve project intention or goals, you must align technology, policy, and management practice.

On project management:

Project management as a discipline must evolve to recognize magnitude of risk that surrounds information exchange programs. CIOs need better tools to assess their organization's capability to execute these large initiatives.

On collaboration and IT success:

Although collaboration readiness falls outside the traditional domain of IT, weakness in that area can kill a project.

To be successful, you must engage stakeholders to ensure they are in a position to collaborate, or you'll have problems at the starting gate. Ignoring collaboration adds risk and can derail a project.

On CIO innovation:

CIOs should take a proactive stance in bringing tools to bear beyond the standard approaches to project management. This places the CIO in a more activist role with business owners and leadership, pointing out challenges that could interfere with project success, whether or not they fall within the historical realm of IT.

To be successful, the CIO should have a framework that explains the challenges, and should create plans and processes to help lead the organization in areas it previously ignored or underrepresented.

On innovation risk:

Innovation and wholesale change to systems inevitably brings some failure and waste. However, with the right tools and due diligence, we can do our level best to increase the chances for success.

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