Why best practices won't fix federal IT

By the time you document a best practice, the problem, event, process or solution will have changed, writes consultant Dennis McDonald, who offers a readily available alternative.

Dennis D. McDonald is an independent management consultant in Alexandria, Va.

In December 2010, federal CIO Vivek Kundra released an ambitious "25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management." No. 10 on that list is: "Launch a best practices collaboration platform."

As Kundra explains: "Within six months, the federal CIO Council will develop a collaboration portal to exchange best practices, case studies, and allow for real-time problem solving. To institutionalize this best practice sharing, agency [program managers] will submit post-implementation reviews of their major program deliveries to the portal. These reviews will populate a searchable database of synthesized and codified program management best practices that all PMs can access."

Of those three proposed elements, I put my money on real-time problem-solving as having the best short-term potential for improving IT. Documenting best practices would be a waste of time and money.

The reason is simple. By the time you document a best practice — assuming you can convince time-pressed employees to document completed projects and their effects — the problem, event, process or solution will have changed. Yes, the resulting archive might have training, education and planning value. But will it really contribute to solving a serious existing problem, such as how best to use technology to provide more services with fewer resources?

A more attainable short-term goal would be to make the expertise of knowledgeable people discoverable and available — regardless of where, organizationally, that expertise resides. After all, when you have a problem, wouldn't it be better if you could identify an experienced expert and contact him or her directly rather than search through a database of outdated documents?

My career has included many projects that involved building electronic documentation and retrieval systems. But times have changed. In recent years, we've seen a rapid growth in the availability of cloud-based IT services, along with the rising use of social networking services, such as Facebook and Twitter. When adapted to satisfy security and privacy requirements, such systems can greatly simplify making and managing relationships and using them to exchange information in near-real time.

The speed with which information can now be exchanged through established relationships, even those as lightweight as a Facebook friend, far exceeds what's possible through constructing, maintaining and using a formally structured database that references past experience. The beneficial aspects of social networks could, to some extent, replace some of our old-fashioned ideas about the need for centralized, highly structured, and expensive knowledge and document management systems.

The power of professional networking over our old systems is the difference between talking with an expert and finding a document that expert wrote six months ago.

However, for such networking to take place in the context of federal IT operations, serious barriers will need to be confronted and dismantled. It’s still common to encounter resistance to doing things in new ways or consulting people from outside one’s office, agency or program.

Those barriers are not trivial, and you'll often find passionate explanations for why they exist. But, as the song says, the times they are a-changing, and the Deficit Monster is demanding that we cut government spending while doing more.

We should start by making it easier for federal employees to take advantage of technology-enabled systems that facilitate collaboration, sharing and problem solving.