Building Better Sand Castles

There's only one way to give your IT consolidation effort any hope of surviving an administrative change: Do it for the right reasons.

It's possible that everything you worked for in the old administration will begin to wash away as soon as the transition team becomes the cabinet. You may have done everything right, but like the impending tide mocking your sand castle, the new administration is sure to change the landscape. At best, they may keep some of what you've done.

I learned this lesson early in my federal career. There, the tide rolls in every two years, and the sand castles I spent years building were gone without a trace. Though disappointing, you must decide to jump back in, embrace the change and build a better castle the next time. If you tie yourself too close, you may find yourself washed up as well.

When I moved to Missouri and served as the deputy CIO, architecting one of the most aggressive public-sector consolidations seen to date, I knew the tide would change, as it always does. So after leaving, I was prepared to see all our work demolished after the transition. The tide rolled in, but in the morning, there was the castle. Not all of it remained, but more than I had expected would last.

The Customer Comes First

What made this castle different from thousands of others? Who knows? But I do know that we tried to do it for the right reasons.

We set our goals for a customer-centered consolidation. We measured service delivery based on what our customers told us was most important to them. We developed open and transparent communication, going as far as inviting customers to our budget hearings and asking them to help us prioritize projects. When consolidation efforts clashed with customer needs, customers won.

We also chose to consolidate because the difference between what we had built and what we would build if we were starting from scratch was so great that it made fiscal sense. If you architected an e-mail system for 40,000 workers, would you ever choose to put in 14 different systems by three different vendors, using servers with enough capacity to run five times the number of inboxes? Probably not. By consolidating, the user would still have e-mail, and the state would realize tens of millions of dollars in savings in just a few years.

We agreed that we wouldn't consolidate anything that could not be undone by the next CIO. We didn't move thousands of staff members far from the customers they were used to serving, nor did we mix budgets in a way that kept us from being accountable to individual funding sources. Not only would that have been bad management, but it also would have been building a castle because you want a kingdom, not to serve the people of the kingdom.

Finally, we made sure to work only on those things that made sense to consolidate. Not everything is better when run centrally.

It's important to note that you can do everything correctly and for the right reasons and still wake up to a smooth, sandy beach in the morning. I found it easiest to remember that it was never my castle. It was simply what we thought was the right direction for our state, our customers and our citizens.

As for Missouri's IT consolidation, the castle was still standing as the tide rolled out. It's a different castle; it has a new moat, and a new flag on top, but the foundation is the same. What the next CIO does with it may determine what the tide takes away tomorrow.

Do what is right for your organization, and everything else will take care of itself -- or it won't. That's the career you chose. Pick up your bucket and start digging again.

Dec 23 2010