A complicated doodle in red, green and black depicts frowning faces, characters pointing fingers at each other, and words such as “caged,” “trapped,” “imprisoned,” and “frustrated.” The picture is framed by a black box, and around which are “together,” “relevant,” “challenged,” and “ownership.”
No, it’s not a child’s drawing. It came from a group of adults – civil servants. And it represents a transformation underway in the City of Edmonton’s information technology department.
The drawing is an example of a “rich picture” – a representation of everything the drawer sees as wrong with a situation, contained within a box. Around the box, the drawer writes his or her ideas of how the situation should be, explains Chris Moore, Edmonton’s chief information officer.
This was his idea, putting the municipality’s IT staff members through the rich picture exercise. “I’ve got 40 pictures of unhappy situations,” he says. Each drawing was penned by a group of 10 or so staff members. There are approximately 300 in the department.
The pictures were telling. “We looked at them and said we don’t want to keep being that way,” Moore says. “If we keep being that way, here’s what’s going to happen: outsourced, decentralized, marginalized, irrelevant.”
Moore signed on to the CIO role late last year. Previously the CIO of the City of Brampton, Ont., he arrived in Edmonton with a mission to boost the municipality’s internal technology services, making IT an agent of change, developing the department into a platform for improvements across a range of services. Doing so would require asking staff members to think differently about their roles, communicate better, and consider a whole new management structure. But first, they had to take a good long look at themselves.
Ten ways of being
The rich pictures exercise helped staff visualize the way they felt about work, which was far from good. Says Moore, “we were not communicating with our internal customers. We were too management heavy. We weren’t being clear on our direction, our vision.”
With the demons exposed, the department collected all of the notions regarding ideal conditions – the words and phrases around the boxes in the pictures – and boiled them down to text touchstones. Moore says the department refers to these as its Ten Ways of Being:
- Open Communication
But that was just one part of the process. “I can’t send out an e-mail and say, ‘You’re now empowered. Go out and do stuff,’” Moore says. Work remained. For one, people need to see the leadership – the CIO – leading the way.
Moore conducted 30 town-hall meetings with the staff prior to the rich pictures session. “Most of the discussion was about possibilities,” he says. For instance, staff knew it was possible for them to communicate better – despite rules set in place some time ago that prohibited individual sub-departments from communicating with each other outside of a formal memo- and ticket-driven process. “We’ve just been straightening that out,” Moore says.
The department also undertook a number of organizational changes. Traditionally the group consisted of typical IT sub-sections: project delivery, operations, application support, planning and architecture, vendor relations, etc.
Putting the Ten Ways of Being to work, the department is developing a matrix based on a resource pool, where individual employees are assigned to various “communities of practice” based on skills, knowledge, and of course availability. The new practice communities include security and risk assurance, client solutions, infrastructure, enterprise solutions, IT strategy and innovation, vendor management, and project management. The model includes “communities of interest” – a home group for each employee.
The model’s success depends on staff members feeling that they have a base, Moore says. “We want people to have a sense of belonging. Right now if you’re a systems analyst and you get seconded to a project, you’re fine to go off to that project as long as no one sits in your cubicle, because that’s your sense of belonging. That’s where you put up your family pictures and everything. We’ve created communities of interest where people have a sense of belonging.”
An important piece of this new puzzle includes a novel approach to the management structure. The IT department is making a distinction between “managers” and “coaches.” Managers are in charge of specific practice areas, focusing on technology and service delivery. Coaches help people in their careers – skills development advice, for instance.
Coaches may be managers, and managers may be coaches, but by separating the roles, the department makes room for different leadership skills: those that apply to technology and those that apply to people. “Not all managers in IT are good people coaches,” Moore says.
From the outside, it all seems a bit ambitious. On the inside, it would be absolutely daunting if there weren’t certain constraints. “The end has to be in sight, because otherwise there’s uncertainty and confusion,” Moore says. “It’s a really organic process, but the target I have is to have it all wrapped up by the end of the year. You can’t keep changing.”
The really big picture
And yet, it’s all wrapped up in a much larger picture. Edmonton’s IT department seems bent on changing not only how it sees itself, but also how others see the group. One aspect has to do with outreach and community involvement. Earlier this year, the organization started making connections with the Edmonton New Technology Society (ENTS), a loose-knit association of businesses and consultants working in the city’s high-tech industry, focused on fostering the community and developing an open platform for technology development. Moore encountered ENTS’ directors at an open house held by the municipality’s IT department, designed to give technology vendors the chance to meet key players and understand the department’s future goals.
“I was thinking, wow, this is exactly what I was hoping we could create,” he says. “And I thought, why should I create it when it already exists? Why don’t we just partner with them…and work together on initiatives that would move the community forward – not from an information technology perspective, but in terms of sustainability in government?”
Though “sustainability” refers to Moore’s idea of transforming the IT department, it also points to a new direction for how the department manages technology itself. Edmonton’s IT department is investigating a different hardware management scheme. Instead of giving municipal employees a desktop computer with a standard set of applications, why not invite users to bring their own computers to work?
“One of the drivers for us is cost,” Moore says. “There’s an opportunity to save money. And we don’t want to alienate the younger generation. They basically say, why should I have to use the man’s technology? The technology I have works for me. Why should I have a work computer and a home computer? Why can’t I use my device within the work setting? We’ll look at security and access, because as a municipality we manage our risk. But we want to leverage those opportunities.”
The IT department is also looking into new software models, particularly software designed in an “open source” system, a more inclusive development syst