How to bet on the right technologies

Keeping up to get ahead

  • Delegate the technical details.

  • But keep up with trends, meeting with vendors and staff members, reading about technology and testing systems.

  • Draw up a long-term plan for your agency's technological direction, which can help you recognize the right pieces when you see them.

  • Follow the leaders. As a rule, lean toward proven products and don't blaze new trails.

  • But be willing to take a chance. Successful policies are, to some degree, the result of trial and error. Sometimes, experimentation is necessary.

'In government, very seldom do you want to be on the forefront of technology. You want to be a little bit behind,' former Commerce CIO Roger Baker says.

Play it close to the vest

Good technology solves problems. It doesn't make new ones.

Sound simple? It's not. Anticipating which technologies will last and which won't is, at best, something of a guessing game. And making the best guesses requires a depth of technical knowledge and an amount of time that government CIOs can't always fit into their schedules.

What they can do is surround themselves with people who have both, because betting on the right technology can mean the difference between success and failure of an agency's mission.

'You don't, from my experience, want to spend time as a CIO being an expert in any of those things,' said Roger Baker, former Commerce Department CIO and now executive vice president of CACI International Inc. in Arlington, Va. 'You can't be a chief technologist for such a large organization.

'But what you can't do,' either, he added, 'is ignore it.'

Even while delegating, CIOs can set their own examples for boosting technology proficiency. They can hold regular meetings with vendors, read material on the latest trends, sit through product demonstrations, test new systems, hold discussions with tech-savvy staff members and, most important, draw up a long-term vision that will continue to shape an agency's technology direction, Baker said.

For example, Commerce's strategy to modernize its Master Address File/TIGER database for the 2010 census also opened the door to new Web-based Global Positioning System and geographic information systems applications, which will likely be used in tracking population growth.

When it comes to hitching taxpayer horses to one innovation over another, the larger challenge for government agencies is finding the happy medium provided by advanced, but fully proven, technologies.

'In government,' Baker said, 'very seldom do you want to be on the forefront of technology. You want to be a little bit behind.'

Yet another challenge is to find a technology that can scale to an agency's dimensions, made doubly harder when that agency must customize a product for the needs of tens of thousands of employees.

Interestingly, when government agencies probe new technology, they're not thinking of return on investment like their commercial counterparts. Gayle Von Eckartsberg, spokeswoman for In-Q-Tel, the venture-capital effort of the CIA that has scoured 2,700 business plans for new systems for the agency, said dealbreakers come in the form of product deployment steps, company stability and potential nonfulfillment of agency needs.

Baker said CIOs must often develop their own best-practice methods just to keep up, even while government standards remain several steps behind the emerging technology.

And learning, at times, means risking, which Baker encourages. He said a successful policy to filter through leading-edge technologies wouldn't be complete without experimentation or failure.

'You have to plan that in your program,' he said. 'If you're not failing, you're not far out enough in your technology planning strategy. I know'in government, that sounds like heresy.'

Instead, he said, measuring the value of each technology means measuring its benefits against its risks. 'Is the reward potentially so high that the risk needs to be taken?' he said.

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