Top IT shops give up their secrets

Top IT shops give up their secrets

Kansas and Phoenix share their strategy for world-class high-tech work: Assemble a great staff and hold on tight

By Trudy Walsh

GCN Staff

What's the recipe for a world-class information technology shop? That's the question GCN/State & Local posed to officials of two exemplary shops, those of Phoenix and Kansas.

In discussions with state and local IT professionals, the same places kept popping up on just about everyone's list of best IT departments: Washington, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, and the two case studies that are the focus here: Phoenix and Kansas.

The right stuff

CIO Danny Murphy relates one of the secrets of Phoenix's success: 'If we're going to attract and retain the best employees, we need to use state-of-the-art products.'

Discussions with their IT directors boiled down the characteristics that are shared by the most successful IT shops:

''Assemble a great staff. 'Hiring and keeping a quality staff' echoed like a mantra from both Kansas' and Phoenix's IT directors as the most important factor in developing a first-rate IT shop.

''Secure support from top management. Phoenix's chief information officer Danny Murphy credited the city manager, Frank Fairbanks, for much of Phoenix's success. Kansas CIO Don Heiman said that Gov. Bill Graves' progressive attitude toward technology was a big help.

''Maintain credibility with customers. Kansas' Information Systems and Communications Division (DISC) queries its clients monthly on customer satisfaction with 52 services, ranging from how promptly help desk calls were answered to the network's response time. Out of a perfect 6, the state's most recent customer satisfaction score was 5.97 (see chart, Page 40, 41). 'If we have any negative scores, we proactively go out and find out what the problem is,' Kansas' Heiman said. 'And if there's a problem, I don't bill the customer. . . . We'll make things right.'

''Structure operations so lines of accountability are clear. Kansas' operation is fee-for-service. DISC receives no government appropriations. To call DISC an example of running government like a business is an understatement. It is a business, fueled by cold, hard cash, Heiman said. As such, its managers have adopted rigorous performance measures. DISC uses 120 performance benchmarks that each DISC division is required to achieve.

''Pay close attention to infrastructure development. Building a sufficiently powerful, durable technology infrastructure is crucial, said Phoenix's Murphy. 'If the road isn't there for people, they're going to build another road, and we don't want that,' Murphy said.

Kansas charts its performance
Help desk
Lan and PC service requests per month
Help desk calls per month
Telecom service requests processed
MVS response time
Percent uptime
MVS turnaround batch
CICS transactions
Automated tape mounts
Tape capacity used
0.39 seconds
99.5 percent
1 hour
220 million
99.8 percent
80 percent
0.36 seconds
99.9 percent
45 minutes
213 million
99.8 percent
75 percent
Average maximum network response time
Problem diagnostics turnaround time
Network downtime per month
2.5 seconds
1 hour
4 hours
2.0 seconds
1 hour, 15 minutes
4 hours
Systems and programming
Error-free code
Major request turnaround
95 percent
90 days
99 percent
60 days
GartnerGroup's effectiveness ratings
(lower score is better)

Data center
Central mail facility
Central mail bar code savings

''Create and maintain a topflight training program. Training excellence reinforces the first goal, recruiting a great staff. Kansas' DISC spends $300,000 to $400,000 training its 220 employees each year.

''Promote a management style rooted in values. Money alone doesn't ensure a quality staff. In a report by GartnerGroup Inc. of Stamford, Conn., A Commentary on Government: State of the Union: Recruitment and Retention, authors Judy Carr and Diane Tunick Morello state that bonuses alone do not keep employees from leaving. Management has to provide real sources of employee satisfaction, such as opportunities to learn new skills and interesting work.

Phoenix's rise to excellence started in 1990, when city officials began developing a cohesive technical architecture. Since then, the city has won a clutch of national and international awards for IT excellence. Here's a sampling:

''Phoenix's Web site, called Phoenix at Your Fingertips, earned a finalist slot last year in the Bangemann Challenge prize competition. The king of Sweden annually presents the international prizes, which bear the name of European Union commissioner Martin Bangemann, to those in charge of selected IT projects that benefit people and communities.

''The Phoenix Web site, at, also won the National League of Cities' 1998 Innovation Award in the category 'Harnessing Information Technology for Your City.'

''The Government Performance Project, which is administered by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs' Alan K. Campbell Institute at Syracuse University, named Phoenix the best-run city in the country this year. Phoenix received the highest mark of any city, scoring the only A. Phoenix tied with Minneapolis in the category of IT management, scoring an A-. Project officials surveyed hardware and software performance, integration of IT systems with other management operations, training, cost and reporting capability.

''The National Civic League named Phoenix an All-America City four times for programs that involve citizens in local government.

A bumpy ride

Although it seems that all Phoenix has to do is smile and rake in the glittering prizes, the road to IT shop excellence was not always an easy one, CIO Murphy said. In addition to everyone's top concern of employee recruitment and retention, the city has had to struggle to ensure adequate funding to buy the latest technology.

Murphy and his team deal with budget constraints in innovative ways. What good is a great IT architecture if the other departments don't know about it and agree to cooperate? 'You have to tell them all the good reasons for playing,' Murphy said. The team also developed a budgeting process that simplified buying. Divisions will be more likely to order specified software by clicking on an electronic form than by going through a lengthy bidding process, Murphy said.

Murphy also cites his staff''the people who do the work''as the IT department's strongest asset. He and the personnel department have done everything they can to streamline recruitment.

Murphy's Law: A great staff is the main ingredient in building a world-class IT shop, says Phoenix CIO Danny Murphy, holding globe. Surrounding Murphy are, from left, back row: Rob Sweeney, Don Eginton, Bill Phillips, Kris McChesney, Peg Davis; in the front row are Jan Kersh, Paul Hamersly and Carl Myers.

The drill used to be that the applicant came in, filled out an application and took a test, Murphy said. A personnel analyst would review the test, score it and mail out a little card that thanked the job seeker for applying.

'It took months,' Murphy said.

Now the personnel office has automated the process with software from SAP America Inc. of Wayne, Pa. Personnel specialists load each application into SAP's R/3 data management software, which sorts applicants' records. IT managers can contact a job applicant about a possible job the next day, Murphy said. 'We have to catch them the next day, or they'll be working somewhere else next week,' he said. 'In this job market, if they're good, they're gone.'

Advanced technology itself is a draw for top workers, Murphy said. 'If we're going to attract and retain the best employees, we need to use state-of-the-art products.'

In Kansas, managers have elevated customer satisfaction to the overriding goal. Nobody is required to use DISC's services; it supports itself with what it earns. 'We can no longer afford to view our customers as a captive audience,' Heiman said. State agencies are free to take their business elsewhere if DISC does not meet expectations.

Keeping customers happy

Heiman and his staff evaluate customer satisfaction with DISC's work religiously, he said. DISC officials worked with IBM and Northern Telecom Inc. of Dallas to design a customer survey. In the first go-round of the survey in 1995, DISC scored a 77.2 percent satisfaction rating. By 1999, the score improved to 99.8 percent. 'Part of our philosophy is that performance increases when it is made public,' Heiman said.

Every three years GartnerGroup benchmarks DISC's rates and services. Company officials look at the value of DISC's work and divide by cost, Heiman said. 'It behaves like a golf score,' he said. 'The lower the score, the better you are. The norm in the GartnerGroup database for data centers in most Fortune 500 companies is 1. For government data centers, it's 1.21. Our rating is 0.60. GartnerGroup rated our network score at 0.55.'

Like Phoenix, the biggest stumbling block on DISC's road to excellence is keeping its great staff. To 'groom the bench,' Heiman and his team have developed a series of rewards:

''Give bonuses for skills as well as achievement. 'If we achieve project goals, I give them 10 percent of their salary. We'll also assign bonuses for special skills when they sign on up to 12 percent.'

Kansas' IT Department began querying clients on their customer satisfaction in 1995 when ratings averaged 77.2 percent. After four years, the department customer satisfaction ratings rose to 99.8 percent.

''Have employees sign an agreement stating that they will stay for 12 months or return half the skill bonus they received when they started.

Also, if an employee leaves within a year, the worker returns the remaining portion of the training money to DISC. For example, if an employee leaves after three-quarters of a year, he returns 25 percent of his training money. In certain mission-critical areas, DISC will sign contracts with employees.

''Outfit employees' homes with connections to the network and other technology so they can work at home when necessary. 'Things have a way of breaking at two in the morning,' Heiman said.

''Constantly acknowledge and thank employees for their commitment and effort.

''Offer flexible hours and challenging assignments.

Neither Murphy nor Heiman advocated long meetings, hierarchical organizational structures, or sitting around waiting for things to happen.

Both of their shops focus on cooperation, taking action and getting things done the right way. As in a world-class kitchen, so in a world-class IT shop: The proof is in the pudding.

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