The business end of new IT
- By Richard W. Walker
- Nov 16, 2004
Context is the key to how agencies evaluate technology
'You're not just looking for technical experts. You want people who are process experts.'
'GSA's Terry Weaver
In an era when IT is treated as a capital investment whose principal purpose is to support agency goals, no technology is an island.
In this environment, the evaluation process is more important than ever. You have to weigh technology in the context of mission support.
'The answer isn't just technology for technology's sake, and it isn't just business for business' sake,' said Mark Krzysko, deputy director of defense procurement and acquisition policy for e-business at the Defense Department. 'It's 'How can we use technology to im- prove our business and move forward?' '
The department's Acquisition Domain uses a cross-service governance structure to make sure the technology it evaluates and acquires buttresses the department's business and network-centric goals, Krzysko said.
It recently applied this approach to evaluating technology when it convened representatives of all the services'the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency'to identify basic capabilities for a department-wide system to track and analyze procurement and contracting information.
The Acquisition Spend Analysis Pilot assessed ways to provide an automated, centralized view of data from sources across each of the major Defense services.
Once the services collectively determined the basic capabilities for the system'for example, the ability to aggregate data from disparate sources'officials had the criteria with which to evaluate and test vendor prototypes in the pilot.
In the pilot phase, Army Contracting Agency officials had vendors put their software to the test in a series of pre-defined scenarios based on those capabilities.
Officials are currently evaluating the results of the pilot, Kryzsko said.
The pilot underscored the effectiveness of the governance structure in providing criteria for assessing and piloting technology, he said.
'Pulling the services together, identifying basic capabilities and piloting [ASAP] for the enterprise was a significant event,' he said.
Indeed, the involvement of key parts of the agency'not just the CIO's office or IT shop'in a collaborative evaluation process is critical to ensuring that a technology will meet mission aims, experts say.
'We find that most of the issues that arise in the process of selecting tools and technologies relate to not having the appropriate buy-in, requirements and sign-off from all the other components within the agency,' said Michael Biddick, vice president for solutions for Windward Consulting Group of Herndon, Va.
'You're not just looking for technical experts,' said Terry Weaver, director of the Center for IT Accommodation in the General Services Administration's Office of Electronic Government and Technology.
'You want people who are process experts, those who know where this solution is going to be applied,' she said. 'You basically have to bring them up to speed on the whole acquisition process so that they understand what they're doing; and then they can come in as an evaluator. They will evaluate [the technology] from the perspective of somebody who may have to live with this later on.'
But there is also such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.
'Technology changes too quickly to insist on bringing everyone to the table,' said Michael Beckley, vice president of product strategy for Appian Corp. of Vienna, Va. 'At some agencies, everything has to be signed off on by 800 people and by the time a decision is made, two years have gone by and the technology is obsolete.'
At the opposite extreme, he said, 'you get the maverick project manager or CIO who has a razor-sharp intellect and can make things happen quickly but doesn't have the support from above to institutionalize the changes necessary to get the technology adopted.'
To strike a balance, a CIO needs to put in place a workable framework for governing technology evaluation and adoption, Beckley said.
That includes having an effective leader who understands both the technology and business sides in the evaluation process.
'It's important that someone be in charge who has enough of a stake in the business outcome and a comprehension of the technology that they can chart the course right from the start,' he said.At the table
Whatever the framework, a more diversified approach helps mitigate the possibility that the evaluation and acquisition process will be driven solely by the CIO's office or the IT shop.
'You need the business owners at the table as well as the technologists and the finance people,' said Valerie Perlowitz, president of Reliable Integration Services of Vienna, Va. 'You need a triumvirate at the table representing the core focus of the organization.'
Perlowitz's company recently helped the city of Falls Church, Va., evaluate the use of voice over IP. In the end, officials decided against adopting VOIP because it didn't make sense from a business standpoint.
'What they really needed was a better financial-reporting system, and not VOIP,' Perlowitz said. 'VOIP may be the latest and greatest technology, but that doesn't have an impact on whether or not you're going to need it.'
'You have to evaluate [the risk of a technology] from a business perspective,' she added. 'It's really critical not to get caught up in 'That looks like a real cool technology.' '
Government agencies of-ten use outside consultants to evaluate technology. Many agencies simply may not have the staffing or expertise to do it in-house.
'Frankly, I think more and more we're being driven by our staffing patterns to use the most current expertise from the commercial marketplace,' Weaver said.
But Beckley cautioned that agencies can wind up relying too much on consultants.
'It's frequently the case that the government doesn't have all the technological expertise to evaluate products in a hands-on way,' he said. 'But agencies shouldn't give up and outsource their brains.'
Instead, he said, agencies should develop their own core expertise in evaluating technology to supplement outside advice.
'It's a real inefficiency when [agencies] don't build that core expertise in-house,' he said.