CIO OUTLOOK

Finding balance between too much and too little IT

Otto Doll

I often find myself arguing both sides of what I call the IT alignment issue. For some state workers, the scope of information technology we throw at them is overwhelming. Others like it laid on thick because they feel the bells and whistles stimulate their productivity. Finding the right balance is a daunting challenge. How do you go about it?

First, accept the fact that state governments are meccas of technology, but it is generally used for only eight hours a day. Most of your software and processing cycles are idle or shut down at any given time. Invest only in what you need.

Next you need to watch out for the hype. Technology usually delivers less than vendors claim. Vendors deliver killer applications all right'they gun down the chief information officer when user expectations are not met. Never portray IT as the silver bullet that will fix weaknesses in management. Realize that every technology has a downside, a level of risk, and educate your agencies on the strengths and weaknesses of IT capabilities.

Specifically, be realistic about the degree to which employees or citizens can adapt to a given technology. For example, South Dakotans will not drive 50 miles into town to conduct state business over a kiosk. If they do drive 50 miles, they'll want to talk to a government employee at the courthouse where they can also catch up on the town news. But the same folks have widely adopted the Internet for state transactions and keep up with the town news'especially after winter snows fall.

Crucial to smooth IT operations in any agency are standard configurations and common operating environments. Enforce them whenever possible. Expensive to buy and maintain, IT generates high costs in initial outlay and ongoing administration and maintenance when there's too much variety. Giving a spreadsheet app to employees does not guarantee that they will use it, much less benefit measurably from its use.

But too little diversity in IT products inhibits employee efficiency. If you don't give a person access to a spreadsheet or other calculation tool, they will do a minimal amount of math on the job. If you believe a given job will not change appreciably over the years, withholding up-to-date technology for it will prove you right. In the transition from luggable computers to notebook PCs to handhelds, many agencies adopted these computers only after they got lighter, smaller, more rugged and more powerful. So keep attuned to equipment that's appropriate to a variety of employee categories.

Citizens' Internet use, extensive as it is, will not be ubiquitous until the digital divide is bridged. If states properly align IT with programs, then cost-effective, highly automated interactions between state governments and their citizens and businesses can occur.

In the meantime, CIOs need to assess the psychology of change as much as the changes technology brings. IT is almost always just one component of your agency's success. The processes you use and your staff's attitudes also influence how successful your missions will be.

CIOs can declare success when governors and agencies consider technology systems to be worth their weight in gold.

Otto Doll, South Dakota's chief information officer, formerly worked in federal information technology and was president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers.

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