How to Sell It

How to Sell It<@VM>Q&A: DLA's Mae De Vincentis

Former Commerce CIO Roger Baker says the first step is informal: 'You start very early selling it socially, long before you go ask for the money.'

Winning the buy-in battle might not be everything in the modernization effort. It might be the only thing.

Your modernization project might not get off the ground if you don't have everybody convinced and committed'inside and outside the agency.

'Think of it this way,' said Roger Baker, former Commerce Department CIO who managed Commerce's Digital Department initiative: 'If everybody all the way along the process is bought in, the money is easy. It's the buy-in'the small 'p' politics'that's the hardest part.'

Where do you start the selling process? And when?

The first big push is inside the agency. Early. Even if modernization is little more than a twinkle in a CIO's eye, you have to start getting the word out about what may be ahead.

A big mistake is to assume that an agency's internal stakeholders, from top to bottom, will simply clamber aboard, experts said.

'All of the different operating divisions of an agency have different missions, different ways of looking at their missions and different types of management,' said Baker, now executive vice president and manager of the network and telecommunications business group for CACI International Inc. of Arlington, Va.

'They have concerns that you may never have thought of. You've got to get in there and listen to those things,' he said.

Baker's suggestion: sit down and list every constituency that might have some input and pay them a visit.

'Make sure it's not a surprise to anybody that you're moving ahead with modernization plans,' Baker said.

It's crucial to drum up support for a project among end users, the agency trenchers who will be using and running the system.

One way to do that is to seek their input. That's what the Army Materiel Command did several years ago when it was planning its Wholesale Logistics Modernization Program (LOGMOD), said Cass Panciocco, executive vice president for engineering and management services at Signal Corp. of Fairfax, Va., a subcontractor on LOGMOD.

'When we were trying to determine a clear migration path from the legacy system to the modernized system, we talked with end users to find out what their needs were as we went through the process of getting to the final system,' he said.

Preparing people for inevitable changes in agency culture is a major part of the selling process.

'Modernization frequently implies consolidation,' Baker said. 'And consolidation implies taking control away from small enterprises and vesting it in a large enterprise. That's what the organization fights organically. People don't want to give up control of [their systems] even though you can convince them logically that [a modernized system] is going to get run better with better service levels and will be less expensive.'

Indeed, it can be a tough sell inside the agency.

At the Defense Logistics Agency, for example, early meetings about modernization among DLA executives from sites around the country were tense and contentious, said DLA CIO Mae De Vincentis. There was considerable fear and uncertainty about the path ahead.

But over the last year and a half, the climate has improved greatly, primarily because of unremitting discussion.

Nothing personal

'It's no longer about 'my rice bowl,'' De Vincentis said. 'This group has learned to discuss the business issues and not to personalize things. They have taken the long-term view that we're putting [a system] in place that employees who work here in 2010 will probably use.'

By the same token, if top management hasn't been sold, the Office of Management and Budget and the Hill won't go for it.

'If your secretary, administrator or director hasn't determined that [the modernization project] is going to be one of their top priorities, then it's probably going to get whacked,' Baker said.

Sealing the buy-in of lower-level information managers across the agency also is critical.

Commerce and other agencies have organized internal CIO councils to facilitate communication among managers from different parts of the organization.

'You get lower-level CIOs together in a group, you talk about issues and create buy-in,' Baker said.

The Treasury Department has created both an internal CIO council and what Treasury CIO James Flyzik calls an internal 'CXO' council.

'X means fill in the blank,' he said, explaining that the agency's CXO council includes CIOs, chief financial officers, human-resources directors, procurement officials and other non-IT program chiefs.

Outside of the agency, it's smart to start cultivating the White House and Congress early in the process.

It's the back-channel conversations with OMB and key Hill committees that pave the way for getting the buy-in when budget time comes around, veterans say.

'You start very early selling it socially, long before you go ask for the money,' Baker said.

G. Edward DeSeve, managing principal of Governmentum LLC of Washington and former deputy director for management at OMB, compared the relationship with the Hill and OMB to a dance.

'You move and your partner moves'you go back and forth with these folks during the entire process,' he said. 'It's a continuous process of involvement back and forth in each step in process with those who ultimately have to accept the system.'

Getting OMB on board is a major step toward getting a modernization project moving.

'You have to have OMB want it,' Baker said. 'You want to make friends with people at OMB a year and a half before your project gets up there.'

OMB officials have no argument with that.

'An ongoing communication and partnership lets us know what an agency is thinking about in terms of modernization long before it shows up in the budget process,' a senior OMB official said.

In the same way, it's also important to give the Hill a heads-up.

'I would certainly encourage agencies to think long-term and keep Congress in the loop,' said a senior House Appropriations Committee staff member. 'It's helpful if you don't spring it on us when the president's budget arrives.'

Customs Service CIO S.W. 'Woody' Hall said his agency makes formal presentations three or four times a year to Hill appropriations committees about his agency's ongoing modernization effort.

Moreover, 'We probably just talk to them at least on a monthly basis by telephone or otherwise, just to keep them in the loop so they don't get surprised,' he said.

But the House appropriations source cautioned agencies not to overwhelm committees or members with data and information about a project.

Just the facts

'Do a screening of the information to make sure you get to us the most important things,' the staffer said. 'We're not here to micro-manage.'

A bump along the modernization road can come when a critical report from the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, lands on your desk like a two-ton truck.

Handling an unfavorable GAO report is part of the process, said DLA's De Vincentis. DLA was hit last year with a GAO report criticizing the agency for not creating an enterprise architecture to guide its modernization plan.

The strategy of DLA officials since then has been to have an ongoing dialogue with GAO about the issues raised in the report and to continue to press their case for the current implementation strategy, De Vincentis said.

Thus, the sine qua non in selling the project is getting the message across, and being relentless about it.

'Communicate, communicate, communicate,' advised Woody Hall. 'That's the way you get your stakeholders behind you in a major investment like this.'

Mae De Vincentis

Mae De Vincentis is director of information operations and CIO of the Defense Logistics Agency. She previously served as DLA's program executive officer for information operations, overseeing the agency's IT programs, including its Business Systems Modernization strategy (BSM).

Do you need to involve all of an agency's internal stakeholders early in a modernization process?

I think undoubtedly you've got to make sure that all the stakeholders are involved in deciding the way ahead. In the case of BSM, when we started talking about re-hosting our major systems around 1998, we had an offer from a vendor that was so attractive that it led us to question it. Through a process of analysis, we came to the realization that it couldn't be done.

This led to a huge realization on the part of [DLA's] senior executive service members who were looking at the offer that we had to [embark on a modernization program] that was going to be pretty significant'and a significant emotional event for us.

Did you seek input from your end users in the initial phase?

Absolutely. In January 1999, when the senior leadership recognized the need [for sweeping modernization] we immediately set up an integrated project team, which was populated only by people that were at the user level ... We see the employees as the most important stakeholders because they are going to be the users.

How do you handle internal conflicts that can arise from cultural changes that come with modernization?

A little contention is a good thing, so I would say you don't want to smooth it out completely. We don't want to be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in all of this.

But we also have a structure in place that allows for very rapid [handling] of issues that cannot be resolved. The court of final appeal is our director [Vice Adm. Keith Lippert] and our vice director [Rear Adm. Raymond Archer]. I can tell you that nothing has gotten to the director. A couple of issues have gotten to the vice director and they were resolved very quickly and sent back down the chain.

What's your best advice for dealing with cultural change?

For the CIO, it's a comfort zone to say that [modernization] is a systems replacement. But we have learned that the emphasis has to be on the change and on the re-engineering and in managing this massive change. It's all about cultural change and the most difficult aspect is managing the change.

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