More rules for IT radicals

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John Low updates his 2017 essay "Rules for IT radicals" to take on the challenges of digital transformation at scale.

In 2017, I published an article in FCW titled: "Rules for IT Radicals: A Pragmatic Guide to Realistically Disrupting the Federal IT Space." The premise of the rules was that digital transformation was needed to radically improve services to citizens – and that IT practitioners should help drive this disruption.   

Now, almost five years later, the rules for IT radicals are still as relevant as ever, including leveraging platform technologies, applying design thinking and focusing on advanced data and analytics.  

But much has changed.  We are now living in a time of unprecedented disruption brought on by the pandemic, cybersecurity breaches such as SolarWinds, dramatic changes in cultural and workforce expectations and rapidly advancing technologies.  

And while these changes have accelerated some IT modernization efforts, most agencies are not achieving digital transformation at scale.  With that in mind, here are additional rules for IT radicals updated for 2022.

1. Focus on value creation

The value of digital transformation can be defined in multiple ways:  better cybersecurity, better analytics and decision-making, the ability to leverage emerging technologies to provide whole new transformational services, less manual work and therefore more time to spend on strategic activities, more responsiveness to customer needs, and increased flexibility and agility. 

Demonstrating how digital transformation creates value requires IT practitioners to have a deep understanding of mission areas as well as outstanding customer engagement skills. As one federal CIO said recently "We don't want to be an [IT] organization that works on technology, we want to be an organization that works on the mission. The more we give away the technology work to the cloud providers, the more all of our staff can work on the mission." 

IT radicals are those that understand the mission, help mission counterparts to define value, conduct trade-off analyses that weigh value gained against costs, and provide accelerators to realize that value sooner. Time and again we see that when agencies can articulate a compelling case for new value resulting from digital transformation, their ability to find funding is significantly improved.

2. Drive cloud optimization and rationalization 

Despite years of Cloud First and Cloud Smart initiatives, most agencies are not maximizing the value of cloud computing. The most radical actions to take right now are to establish enterprise cloud contracts to counteract cloud sprawl and stovepiped approaches, take full advantage of the investments Cloud Service Providers are making in innovative cloud solutions, and develop a data-driven, portfolio-based approach to application migration and modernization that moves well beyond rehosting for many systems. 

The profound changes in transformational customer services that are realized through advanced analytics, AI, and edge computing require a more comprehensive, committed, and concerted approach to cloud. IT radicals need to lead the way to more fully leveraging cloud capabilities and connect the dots across application modernization initiatives.

3. Adopt agile everywhere

Five years ago agile systems development adoption was well underway across the federal government and was clearly within the realm of IT practitioners. The COVID-19 response demonstrated the importance of bringing agile principles to all aspects of IT management. Actions to be taken include streamlining IT governance and decision-making operations; working with procurement officials to develop fast track procurement options; and automating IT functions such as configuration and testing, backup and recovery, and on-going maintenance support. When the pandemic hit, federal CIOs demonstrated the ability to act quickly in a crisis.  IT radicals seek ways to institutionalize that agility. 

4. Proactively manage complexity

Many agencies are overwhelmed by the managerial and technical complexity required to scale digital transformation efforts.  One of the most important actions an IT radical can take is to help an agency establish a target digital architecture, including a defined set of core technologies and providers. This should be a prerequisite to almost any other digital transformation effort.  Organizations should then apply automated, continuous value approaches to solution delivery that enable greater volume of activity with fewer defects. They should also upgrade their vendor management and technology evaluation and insertion capabilities to systematically guide the evolution of their target architecture.

Five years ago, I urged fellow IT radicals to disrupt the status quo to bring about needed change.  But we are now living in a time of unprecedented disruption brought on by external forces. Instead of being disruptors, successful IT radicals today are the ones who can harness the inherent disruption in the environment to drive the speed and scale of digital transformation.  

That takes know-how and calm, confident, competent leadership. It means having a strategic vision and being able to articulate the value of embracing enterprise solutions. And it means building the coaching, collaboration, and consensus-building skills necessary to capitalize on this moment in time.

John Low is an independent consultant in Washington, D.C.  

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