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'Modernization' Has Too Many Meanings to be Useful

Government IT teams, and governments themselves, like to talk about modernizing IT, but different people mean different things by it; make sure you understand the different options before anyone starts work

Those running government IT teams in the US generally agree that the IT “ecosystem” is dangerously out of date. Over 90% of US Federal IT leaders say it’s urgent for their agencies to update legacy applications, and nearly two thirds of state CIOs say 60% or more of their IT systems need to be modernized.

At the federal level, the new administration’s proposed budget includes pockets of modernization, notably for cybersecurity activities and high profile systems like the 2020 Decennial Census. And the newly announced American Technology Council establishes a high-level council with the mission to “transform and modernize [the federal government’s] information technology and how it uses and delivers digital services.”

The Many Meanings of Modernization

However, as with so much in business and management, just because people are using the same word doesn’t mean they’re talking about the same thing. Government IT leaders often use the term “modernization” to describe fundamentally different activities; and that normally break down into one or more of three categories.

  • Updating foundational technologies and associated business processes.
  • Reducing the duplication of capabilities across different software or systems.
  • Improving the capabilities of a government agency to provide better or more services through new technologies.

The differences between these three cases go beyond the scope of the change or the level of effort required. Fundamentally, they are seeking different outcomes. Upgrading technology or processes is about reducing risk — from unsupported systems or cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Getting rid of duplicative technology is typically an efficiency exercise by reducing or avoiding IT cost and complexity. And improving an organization’s capabilities through new digital opportunities is squarely focused on enhancing effectiveness.

Make the Most of Modernization

Government IT teams are undoubtedly doing themselves a disservice when they lump these different activities under the general heading of “modernization.” To be clear, they’re all useful and worthwhile efforts, and they all have the potential to improve government service delivery, but they can’t be treated in the same way.

To better identify and implement those differing solutions, successful government IT organizations take the following steps to avoid common pitfalls in modernization initiatives:

  1. Be clear about the intended outcome: Attempting to achieve multiple goals within the same initiative will too often result in none being achieved. It’s tempting to seek to improve the organization’s IT at the same time as rationalizing redundant software, but the attendant scope creep can cause serious delays, cost overruns, or failure.

    Instead, successful organizations clearly and narrowly define the scope of the project and avoid add-ons that are outside of the primary outcome.

  2. Tell the right story for your audience: Even with a clearly defined outcome and scope, obtaining and maintaining support from multiple colleagues, stakeholders, and oversight bodies remains a significant obstacle for many in government IT. To make the business case for modernization, successful teams focus on an “IT value story” that most strongly connects organizational objectives with IT’s desired outcomes.

    For example, take an agency that was recently subject to a damaging data breach. A modernization story that emphasizes how modern systems will improve the agency’s cybersecurity posture would increase the chances of gaining support (and funding) for needed technology upgrades. Alternatively, in an organization facing significant budget cuts, a modernization story connecting portfolio rationalization projects to IT cost savings will resonate better than modernization focused on achieving new digital capabilities.

  3. Mature the functional activities necessary to reach their objective: IT has been such a core part of everyone’s work for decades now that the organization’s old technology can create a heavy burden for IT teams. But for many teams, this burden extends beyond obsolete technologies and also includes outdated modes of operation. In other words, modernization initiatives will require IT teams to update and improve the way they work (their organizational structure, their processes, the capabilities of team members, and so on) to increase the maturity of functional activities related to the desired outcome.

    For example, an organization seeking cost savings through portfolio rationalization will need to improve its ability to define IT services and implement reusable architectures. Upgrading these core processes can benefit not only the first modernization initiative, but IT’s capability to continually modernize in the future too.

 

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One Response

  • Mark Cecil says:

    I would like to see more on how to better tell our story. Our organization is good with telling what we’re doing, how and when we’re doing it, but the why is lacking. Telling a story around what we’re doing and why we’re doing it that relate not only to the business we support, but our staff is vitally important as the article pointed out. This goes not just for ‘modernization’ projects but for everything else as well. Good article. Thank you for sharing.

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