Queensland Housing and Public Works on doing better than putting lipstick on a pig

The department's CTO said the hardest part of replacing ageing systems is managing expectations of the business.

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Like many organisations, whether in government or the private sector, the Queensland Department of Housing and Public Works embarked on a digital transformation that required decisions about what to do with technical debt and legacy systems.

But not all systems are ready for transformation, even if an upgrade requirement had been highlighted, the department's CTO Tim Dunn said, which means that managing expectations of the business, not the technology itself, can often be the biggest challenge.

See also: 8 things that should be on every CIO's to-do list (TechRepublic)

Appearing on a panel alongside other state government IT leaders at the Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo on the Gold Coast on Monday, Dunn was asked how he handled looking at digital transformation while trying to stay aware that some of the department's mission-critical applications and services running on older systems simply could not be transformed with a switch.

"One of our key roles I think as technologists is attempting to try and manage expectations," he said.

"Everybody is an expert now they've set up Wi-Fi at home so they must know all about technology after all. If you take a large scale ERP that's 10 years old and has no upgrade path, it's fine if we just keep putting lipstick over this pig then. Eventually, it will no longer be a pig and it will just evolve into some new contemporary platform, won't it?" Dunn joked. 

"And so managing expectations for me is an incredible challenge."

Dunn said it's important to recognise that at some point, there needs to be a modernisation of core platforms spread across the organisation. He said senior leadership needs to understand exactly why something needs to change.

"Attempting to try and manage expectations of senior leaders about, one, just how challenging that is; and two, if all that we do now is change the technology for a different pig, then we're still going to have a pig on the other side," he said.

"The best outcome is to not even look at the system, but to rather sort of look at those processes and systems -- our reasons for being in business and why are we here, what's the outcome that we've looked to try and achieve -- that is absolutely critical.

See also: Special report: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

"Before we begin the journey to look at what might be an appropriate enabling piece of technology to support the journey that the organisation needs to go on."

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Before assuming the CTO role, Dunn was CIO for almost 10 years. He discussed taking a new approach to digital leadership, noting that ownership by the executive leadership team and an understanding that a digital transformation affects the entire business is important to its success. 

"It's not just a new piece of technology, but rather it's actually a full transformation of the service delivery element," he said.

"Technical debt is absolutely real ... the stuff of yesterday is the problem.

"We need to be upfront about that but recognise there are different approaches that we can take now on the business and it really is about doing some of that journey-mapping work before you start to look at systems, and that can be very difficult and confronting, particularly for business leaders who are quite convinced that [we] just need a faster course."

The department has touted that it's remit will deliver services that benefit Queenslanders and supporting government service delivery.

It looks after housing, homelessness, and sport; building policy and asset management; as well as digital technology and services for the state and is responsible for the Queensland government Chief Information Office.

Asha Barbaschow travelled to Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo as a guest of Gartner.

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