Profiles
May 7, 2012

IT project success: It’s about managing change

Ken Cochrane was the CIO for Canada from June 2006 until December 2008, when his executive exchange expired. He had previously been the CEO for IT Shared Services at Public Works and Government Services Canada, the CIO at Canada Revenue Agency and an executive at MetLife. He spoke with editor Paul Crookall.

When I came into the role, it was just as we were re-positioning the CIO branch and the role of the CIO in the Government of Canada. It had been largely focused on e-gov and government online since 2000, very much directed at service to Canadians. So we took stock: are we doing the right things and getting the right results? We went out and talked to departments. We examined ourselves. We decided to refocus on three foundational elements, and developed a 100-day plan.   
The priorities were: (1) information technology inside government; (2) information management inside government; and (3) security in government. We moved the service agenda to a separate division in Treasury Board (the Services Sector), because the service agenda requires a full-time focus in its own right. In the CIO Branch we had been spending a large portion of our time on connecting to Canadians at the expense of the fundamentals, which are:

  • improving the disciplines under IM, IT, and security, getting the right focus in place in all departments to manage these three priorities;
  • setting standards in each of these areas so we can act as a unified body, “one government” rather than separate programs;consolidating services within government where appropriate; and
  • providing leadership on behalf of all departments and programs.So, much of what’s happened over the course of that last two and half years has been to re-establish these core areas.

 
What are the implications of the economic situation for IT?

Helping operations be more efficient and sharing ideas across government has always been a big part of the CIO agenda, and will be even more so in the future. We’ve taken a strong stand on using Web 2.0 technologies, to get people to share information and ideas more effectively. Web 2.0 technology is generally lightweight and inexpensive – the cost is more the investment of people time to organize for its use. Our approach has been to pilot Web 2.0, and as we see the value, use it more broadly inside government; work out the kinks and then look at extending its use outside government for citizens or for outward facing purposes. So we see tremendous potential.

There seems to be more sharing across the IT community than is traditional in government.

We have a wonderful network inside the government among heads of technology, information management, and security. We also work closely with the Public Sector CIO Counsel that I co-chair, that brings all of the provinces, territories and municipalities together monthly. The Five Nations (CIOs from Canada, U.K., U.S., N.Z., Australia) also meet regularly and cooperate on strategic subjects, including Web 2.0, green IT, shared services, and citizen service. We frequently compare notes on our approaches.

We are also involved in a project with nGenera and Don Tapscott, a worldwide study of Web 2.0’s application to government.

What better way is there to reduce risk than to find out what’s working elsewhere?

What’s happening is we often embark on the same issues at the same time because we do work so closely. Tiptoeing down the trail together on Web 2.0, green IT and other initiatives, does give us all a sense of comfort. We seek advice from each other about people that want to come and do business with us as well as new approaches to solving our problems. So these are important networks that work very well for us. In federal CIO-like roles, it’s very tough to get relevant knowledge and advice, so we augment this through the building of good networks with other jurisdictions.

What can general managers do to help the IT branch?

IT, IM, and security are enablers of the business of government. When we launch initiatives using technology it is really about the business, not the technology. We’re strongly focused on improving the performance of large IT-enabled initiatives. Ministers are nervous when we launch big projects, and rightly so. We’ve looked at this area very carefully and studied the root causes as to why large projects tend to get into trouble.  

We are implementing three fundamental components that we believe will greatly improve project success. In keeping with our theme of sharing knowledge with our networks, these components are based on the Gateway Project in the U.K., and some of the project management principles that were implemented in Ontario:

1. Gates: Looking at the life cycle of the project, from the first “light bulb” going on through to the end of the project, “gates” are defined points where the team needs to stop, review progress and make key decisions. In the past, projects would often just go on – you have a problem so you put more people on it, spend more money. But that doesn’t normally work well; you may actually have a bad design or the wrong project. With this new approach, you will stop at the gate and engage senior management in a discussion around how the project is proceeding relative to the business case and expected outcomes. Most of the gates occur early in the project, to detect and correct problems early, or to terminate poor projects.

2. Independent third party assessment: At predefined gates, the project will engage other government people, outside experts, and project managers to come in and conduct an assessment. Asking questions – is the client engaged? Is the champion involved? Is the business case still valid? Is the technology reasonable? Are business requirements supporting business outcomes?

3. Dashboards: This is a monthly, published one-page review of the project that is discussed by the management team and executive committee; that Treasury Board Ministers and others can look at and be informed as to, “How is this project doing?” Non-IT managers contribute through engaging with IT, supporting the project champion, connecting the project to the outcomes they’re expecting to achieve, (the actual work outcomes, not the technology). And, if the business case doesn’t make sense, you have a chance to fix it before you spend all of the money.

These three components are really all about increasing transparency in projects and providing an opportunity to ask educated questions to ensure project success.

Are we at a better level of sophistication in the non-IT managers understanding of this sort of thing? Where are we headed in building their capacity?

Project success is not usually about the technology. It’s about the willingness and ability of the client to guide it and absorb the changes that result – it’s about managing change. Executive education is a big piece of our new project management approach. Many executives have not been given the time to understand IT and all the dimensions of project oversight management. So a big part of this is helping make sure that the business executive understands what he or she’s taking on when they launch a major project.

There is better awareness today of the dimensions of making change happen in organizations and absorbing the change and overseeing projects, but there is still a gap. One of the major challenges we face is that most executives have the opportunity to lead only one big project in their career; very few have a second opportunity to guide a major project. So they don’t get to apply the lessons they learned on the first one. You rarely see a se

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