The Elusive Promise of Enterprise IT

I'm working with a client at a major crossroads with their program and the supporting system. We've been soliciting a ton of feedback, working through various communication approaches, and refreshing guidance to reflect a more user-center approach. They'll pull through but the broader questions raised on the return on investment-- particularly for the supporting IT system-- has me thinking about other federal programs in a similar position.

"It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge."

Montgomery Schuyler expressed this sentiment the day the Brooklyn Bridge opened for traffic in May 1883. That milestone moment marked the end of more than a decade of planning and construction and the beginning of a new era for commerce and economic growth for the region. Flash forward to 2014.  Our infrastructure has been revolutionized several times over and we now count our reliance on information technology systems among our critical infrastructure. In the case of physical infrastructure, a lasting concrete and steel monument is a testament to the tremendous effort expended.  For our core information technology systems, the results can be equally transformative. 

As it was then, careers and lives are defined and shaped around these massive, multi-year structural efforts. Years are invested in planning, design, and implementation and, ultimately, success is made possible by the complex choreography that mobilizes the right skills at the right time. After all of the blood, sweat, and occasional tears, we do not often take the opportunity to reflect on what has been accomplished.

Many agencies are nearing the end of a massive investment and undertaking in the implementation of enterprise-wide systems (many of them financial systems). As the final milestones are reached, leadership has a unique opportunity to proactively answer the following questions. 

  • Does the new (insert cryptic but sometimes clever acronym here) live up to the promise for a more comprehensive, efficient, effective system?
  • Have we actually consolidated more our legacy systems?
  • Have we closed any data centers?
  • Have we united staff around the core mission and armed them with tools and information that needed to carry out mission work?

Answering these questions takes leadership and guts—a willingness to take a hard look at the investment and outcomes to celebrate what worked and acknowledge what did not.