Driving Innovation in IT

By David M. Bessen, Director and CIO, Arapahoe County, Colorado

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Innovation is the key to driving an organization forward. In the public sector, results of innovative efforts vary from recognized efficiencies and cost reductions to new products and new citizen-oriented services. Innovation, however, need not be limited to technology; it could result in a dramatically improved business process stemming from a deep re-examination of “how we do business” or “execute a transaction.” But whether we are seeking business growth, performing more with less, or striving to deliver more value, the underlying question that senior managers grapple with is “how do I create or stimulate innovation?”

Innovators, like Salim Ismail, cite Apple’s model of identifying a small creative group and allowing them to work in secret “on the edge”, outside of the mainstream of the company, not subject to the restrictions of corporate structures and processes. The Newspapers Next consulting group, a spin-off from Clayton Christiansen’s consultancy, provided a model for newspapers to “rescue themselves” back in 2008 by proposing innovation funding for pilot projects—also on the edge—thatwould succeed or fail fast in 6 to 8 weeks. A good example of innovation from the edge in the public sector is illustrated by an effort initiated by a creative and passionate database administrator who wanted to find “a better way” for government to work. His analysis and initial prototyping led to the creation of highly efficient digital workflow tools and significant savings.

This staff member wanted to find a way to improve the processing of welfare benefit applications. The Federal government imposes timeliness mandates for the processing of these applications, which could result in financial penalties on the County if the mandates are not met. On his days off, the staff member performed his own analysis of the business processes, interviewing front desk staff who received the applications and case workers who reviewed and processed them. He concluded that having a digital workflow, in lieu of a paper-based one, would allow for the tracking of applications and the ability to query the set of applications. With this query, the applications could be prioritized and the timeliness requirements could be met. Working under the radar, he then built a prototype application to prove out the concept. Once the decision to pursue this course was made, an agile development team was assembled to create a production-grade system. Within three months, the first release was made available; the second release, a month later, was put into production and achieved a 98% improvement in efficiency and led to savings of $1M annually. In the following 12 months, the application was enhanced with touchscreen capabilities and implemented in the mailroom, in addition to the 12 front desk staff. Not only were great efficiencies realized, but the solution actually resulted in needy citizens receiving food aid or shelter days earlier.

Looking at this project, there are a few striking distinctions that directly contributed to the wildly successful innovation and result. The effort started as a “skunk works” one, under the radar and driven by an individual’s passion. This individual felt comfortable—he “had permission”—within our departmental environment to explore new ideas, even if the “business analysis” and requirements gathering were being performed by a DBA, not a BA. The process he used was entirely outside of our normal methodology for project initiation, analysis, prioritization and implementation. He was rogue and management knew it, providing him support and encouragement to continue his exploration.

Concurrently, as IT was supporting him, he was also building the trust and confidence of our peers in the Human Services Department. This was of vital importance, as when the prototype was complete and we launched the project fully, it was critical to have stakeholders and a product owner from the Human Services Department. These two roles were more easily filled and we had a higher level of commitment as a result of the DBA’s interactions in his effort to find a better way. We, as an IT Department, had won the trust and confidence through the actions of our staff member and this contributed directly to the rapid success of our agile efforts.

Methodology and process is important in running an IT shop; but so is the freedom to stray from the adherence to methodology. Too often we put strictures in place which stifle innovation—which is why it is necessary to foster changes “on the edge”. Equally important is passion:  having a yearning to make things better—to the find better/faster/cheaper—that will drive the enterprise forward, if, and only if, that passion is allowed to be exercised. Finally, whatever you do to innovate, your results will be far better if trust and confidence between IT and the businessare established and encouraged every step of the way.