IT just like Alice in Wonderland: Defence

Department of Defence CIO Greg Farr is sick of IT projects taking years to provide outdated technology to users, saying that this needs to change, or else IT risks becoming irrelevant.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

Department of Defence CIO Greg Farr is sick of IT projects taking years to provide outdated technology to users, saying that this needs to change, or else IT risks becoming irrelevant.

Greg Farr
(Credit: Ben Grubb/ZDNet Australia)

Farr presented today as a keynote speaker at an Australian Computer Society event in Canberra, starting his speech with an excerpt from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

"Now! Now!" cried the Queen. "Faster! Faster!" And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, "You may rest a little now."

Alice looked round her in great surprise. "Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!"

"Of course it is," said the Queen, "what would you have it?"

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

"That's pretty much where the ICT industry is at the moment," Farr said, after finishing the passage. "We are struggling to keep up, and struggling to keep relevant."

We have come into a time where employees can get the technology items they need without going anywhere near the company's IT shop, Farr said, providing an example of an iPhone app available on the iTunes store, which helps soldiers to adjust their rifle sights. He asked why anyone would bother going to the department when it is so easy and cheap to download the publicly available app.

He said that IT departments are running a "very serious risk" of not meeting user expectations by continuing their traditional processes, which are detailed and precise, with lots of documentation defining business requirements.

The problem is that such processes take years, and, when they are done, end up delivering obsolete technology.

"We are just wasting our time if we go through these processes," he said.

Government especially has the process mindset, but Farr wants that to change to "get out and shake that tree".

In order to do that, IT processes need to be user focused, mobile and rapid. This requires a team that understands the business and possesses soft skills, and not just deep, technical thinking ability.

Yet, he admitted that no one in the industry can have all of the skills that they need. "We're no longer in the business of employing all the IT specialists the business needs," he said.

This makes partnering with industry necessary.

Unfortunately, even industry partnerships are bogged down in old models, which leads to inefficiency and slow processes.

Providers have become used to taking a long time to think about a problem, providing information or requirements to IT departments, which would then work on what they were given and provide something back. Farr questioned why the providers and IT departments can't just collaborate on the problem.

He also noted that the industry isn't used to delivering on outcome-based contracts, expressing surprise that industry expects more money to complete projects that aren't delivering what Farr wants.

"I'm still a little bit surprised when people in industry say, 'but we'll have to do a lot more, and we'll run at a loss'," he said.

He doesn't want them to run at a loss, but he wants them to take responsibility for what they are providing.

In the same way, he expects performance to match what he is paying for. "If I wanted a lesser level of performance, I would have contracted for a lesser level of performance."

He said that the problem that is causing all of the tears is both sides making assumptions. This needs to stop, he said, with IT departments and providers becoming more of a team.

"I don't want to have the position where people are pointing fingers at each other," he said. "I'm looking for cradle to grave industry involvement."

(Carousel image credit: Down the rabbit hole image by Samantha Marx, CC 2.0)

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