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Commentary: Six Tips for a Better Return on IT Investments

Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on information technology over the past decade, the federal government has achieved just a small portion of the productivity improvements realized by private industry on similar investments.

In response, the office of the Federal CIO has mandated dramatic changes in the way IT systems are developed and deployed, commonly known as “the firsts” -- cloud first, shared first and future first. In short, Web-based applications should be the default; wherever possible agencies should share assets; and they must keep future needs in mind when modernizing systems.

To ensure compliance with these initiatives, CIOs need to focus on six things:

Adopt business ready technology. In a Forrester Research paper, “The Process-Driven Business of 2020,” Connie Moore predicts that the IT department eventually will be absorbed into business operations thanks to modern business process management platforms.

For government users, BPM is business ready technology that delivers the functionality of a custom application with less time and expense than commercial off-the-shelf software. End users control application modifications, while vendors improve the core development platform.

Adopt a “one platform, one environment” approach to modernization. Typically, Federal agencies have used both task-specific software packages and custom developed mission-specific applications -- a “best of breed” approach. Different systems, however, don’t naturally communicate and work well together. Despite having the best software for any particular need, overall IT performance suffers. And with the rapid growth of mobile, CIOs find themselves creating multiple versions of mobile applications for each major platform.

Business ready technology captures the benefits of best of breed without the downsides because CIOs no longer need to search to find the best existing application; they can create just what their organization needs. Some platforms come with native mobile functionality, removing the need for separate mobile development.

Scrap traditional requests for proposals. The traditional software RFP process is slow. Planners and procurement officers must document every known requirement and predict future requirements to be built into a custom system or to evaluate COTS products. Even with frequent user feedback, so-called “agile” custom development is slow and costly if developers use traditional hard-coding approaches.

Business ready technologies shift the work from coding to configuring. Users and IT staff share a common language and a visual development environment. There’s no need to specify all possible requirements. Federal software buyers just need to document core requirements and a list of desired functionality. The RFP process would shift so that bidders propose a platform and a number of hours required to create the functionality.

Focus on flexibility, not just moving operations to the cloud. What can be moved to the cloud today may have to be put behind a firewall tomorrow, or vice versa. Federal CIOs could meet both the cloud first and future first mandates by buying and building applications that can easily be moved between the cloud and an agency’s own data center. Advanced business ready technology like BPM is designed for both environments and delivers an identical platform in either deployment method.

Plan well ahead. You need to plan for where you want to be, not where you are at the moment. Beyond ensuring that all new applications use the XML data format, support server virtualization, and adopt open standards, CIOs should consider BPM technology to address other core requirements, including:

Minimized underlying code changes, Fully customizable workflow, Web browser interfaces, “Build once, deploy anywhere” support for emergent platforms and operating systems, and Enhanced security to support data privacy and protect against hacking.

Begin with mobile and social in mind. Many government activities happen out in the field, not behind a desk. Mobility improves productivity and supports telework. Social collaboration tools naturally follow mobile, but only if in the context of a work process or activity, not as a stand-alone application. Work events must be automatically published to the social stream where employees communicate.

We’ve entered a new era for federal government information systems and applications. The failures of past investments to achieve desired goals have led to the new mandates. CIOs and their staffs have no choice but to evolve and do so rapidly. Business ready technology like BPM is becoming a critical part of that evolution.

Evan McDonnell is a vice president at Appian.

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