Agile By Design

Fast-moving IT is backed by steady and deliberate planning.

When Dianah Neff was appointed CIO of Philadelphia in 2001, the country's fifth-largest city had virtually no IT governance in place. Decisions were made but not always executed. Goals were set, but projects were never initiated.

Today, in contrast, Neff's charter and responsibilities as CIO -- as well as those of the city's 460-person IT department -- are clearly laid out. IT supports 52 city departments and agencies. IT program managers have been appointed to oversee the relationship between IT and clusters of similar departments, such as public safety and public works. Neff reports directly to the mayor and serves on his cabinet.

Diana Neff

Dianah Neff, CIO of Philadelphia

Photo Credit: Scott Nibauer

Neff is also the driving force behind Wireless Philadelphia, an ultra-high-profile, fast-moving, multimillion-dollar project to build the biggest municipal wireless Internet system in the country. First announced in April 2004, the project is on time and well under budget ( EarthLink Inc. recently agreed to construct the system at no cost to the city), and five neighborhood pilots are up and running. The 135-square-mile network, which will provide inexpensive high-speed Internet access to everyone citywide, is scheduled to be fully operational by the end of next year.

"The easy part is the technology," Neff says. "The truly hard effort is defining needs, creating a vision that others can understand and embrace, and then developing a road map to achieve that vision."

As counterintuitive as it seems, it's this kind of methodical planning and relentless communication, coupled with the adoption of standard processes and procedures, that works to breed agility, according to Neff and several other of this year's Premier 100 IT Leaders. In other words, agility is very much a matter of design.

Thoughtful Speed

"There's some misconception about agility. It's not just about changing rapidly," says Earl Monsour, director of strategic information technologies for the Maricopa County Community College District in Tempe, Ariz. "It's about responding quickly and appropriately, which requires having a long-range plan in place at all times. With a plan, you can make adjustments as technology changes and business opportunities arise, rather than reinventing the wheel each time change occurs."

Maricopa's long-range plan to overhaul its core WAN, which supports the district's 10 colleges, is a prime example. For the past two years, Monsour continually talked about the need for a major network upgrade and the plan for making that happen. During that time, the college district's IT organization successfully implemented several network enhancements, including a network load-balancing system and two storage-area networks. These projects worked to boost executive confidence in the larger network overhaul proposal, and when it came time to formally request the budget to perform the overhaul, "we had approval for that major investment within a month," Monsour says. "The reason is because we had planned and communicated our plan so much beforehand. The plan constantly has to be communicated. It just can't sit on the shelf."

Premier 100 honoree and Lafayette Consolidated Government CIO Keith Thibodeaux firmly believes that by identifying and standardizing certain technology and business process frameworks, Lafayette is better able to collaborate with other governmental and nongovernmental entities, which is critical to its own organizational agility. Frameworks take into consideration systems and organizational interdependencies, required IT and business skills, and the long-term costs and ROI of IT.

Using the framework approach, Lafayette Consolidated Government is working with five universities in the state and the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative to create its own research network that will support the $20 million Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise Center .

The center's 3-D technology is used by the oil and gas industry to model seismic data and reservoirs. But for most of the region's small and medium-size independent oil and gas companies, the technology was out of financial reach. So Lafayette's Economic Development Authority stepped in, along with Silicon Graphics Inc., to create an immersive visualization facility.

"We think of this as a co-op model. We can give the oil and gas companies the same competitive technology [as the large oil companies, most of which have moved to Houston], but no individual company has to spend the money for it," Thibodeaux explains.

Under a proposed utility computing model, Lafayette Consolidated Government, which already owns and operates its own electric utility company, is also planning to run fiber network connections directly to every home and business in Lafayette.

"Technology and moving a lot of data around is central to our economy. We have to position our city as unique in its bandwidth capabilities. For us, it's pure economic development," Thibodeaux says.

Agility Ingrained

Don Gibson, managing director of IT at FedEx Services in Irving, Texas, considers collaboration and communication to be the very lifeblood of the overnight transportation and shipping company.

"At FedEx, we look at agility as an absolute," Gibson says. "We have to be as agile as our business partners."

By way of example, Gibson cites a recent customer win that involved luring a very large, 25,000-user company away from one of FedEx's top competitors.

"We did it by getting this customer fully set up and integrated into our systems in 60 days. Normally, it's a process that takes six months," he says.

"We did around-the-clock development and testing, working nights and weekends," Gibson explains. "We have that kind of culture here. It's one that expects, recognizes and rewards agility." Indeed, the project won an internal "hall of fame" award at FedEx Services, he notes.

Not surprisingly, Premier 100 IT Leaders also apply the concept of agility by design to how they train their staffs and groom next-generation IT leaders.

At National Public Radio in Washington, CIO Bob Holstein continually encourages his staff to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. "The primary impediment to agility is people being locked into a certain way of doing things," he says.

So in 2004, when Holstein came to NPR as its first CIO and vice president for IT after eight years at Capital One Corp. , one of the first things he did was change the way the IT staff interacts with NPR's IT users, particularly those in the newsroom, who he says are always frantically rushed and have no attention span for hashing out new system requirements with IT developers.

"Instead, we applied a development process akin to extreme programming. We would put something in front of the users [without their input], who would then tell us if we were pointed in the right direction," Holstein explains. "In the process, we came to understand their business processes much better and faster than if we had sat down in a traditional [joint application development] session." The result is a working prototype of a much more efficient system for tracking the assignment, production and archiving of news stories.

"Being able to adapt your communication style to the peculiarities of the business needs and certain users is absolutely critical to agility," Holstein says. "At NPR, we have some of the most brilliant folks in journalism in the newsroom, and the news is our bread and butter. That said, many of them tend to be computerphobic, yet they're at very senior levels of the organization. I just can't overemphasize the importance of adaptable communication skills to overall agility."

reprioritizing skills

As IT leaders focus on the communication, business, financial and political skills they deem essential to agility, they also are actively de-emphasizing other skills, notably technical expertise.

Maricopa's Monsour, who launched his IT career over 30 years ago as a computer technician, now lists business and financial expertise among his top IT leadership skills. When the county's taxpayers recently approved a $951 million bond issue, a good chunk of which will go toward enhancing IT, Monsour was thrilled yet doubly challenged. The reason is that the bond is approved for capital spending only. "Now the challenge is growing IT and maintaining the high level of support and customer service with no increases in operating costs," he says.

Philadelphia's Neff says, "I don't have the technical depth that I used to have. I no longer consider myself a technical expert." But she has had to become very much a political expert.

In both government and the corporate sector, "CIOs are required to be more politically savvy. You have to be sensitive to the community and where the history is and to finding key players from whom you need to take your lead, rather than dictating projects from above," she says. Had she not approached her leadership role in this way, Wireless Philadelphia might never have happened.

"If I had just been focused on IT and reducing the cost of service delivery," Neff says, "I may have missed this opportunity altogether."

Special Report

2006 Premier 100 IT Leaders

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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