The Transformation of Business Processes and Tools

Ed Toner, CIO, State of Nebraska
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Ed Toner, CIO, State of Nebraska

The phrase I hear most often in meetings with my public sector peers: “We need to modernize our application.” As a recovering Industrial Engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt I hear, “my process is broken.” And, what my peers usually mean is, they want to replace their application. I have a very standard reply in these situations, “What problem are you trying to solve?” and “How is this going to improve the experience of our customers, the citizens of Nebraska?”

Too often organizations attempt to resolve or make their issue go away by purchasing a new application. This seems to be the catch all resolution for the public sector, to replace technology the moment that we hear complaints from citizens and/or employees. Worse yet is the excuse for inaction. “Why put the effort into this system, let’s simply replace it.” There are a variety of consistent responses for this situation ranging from generalizations that include the age of the application, the language the application is written in, the large number of customizations or the high cost of support. Usually not stated however, are any issues with the business process or lack of consistency, lack of documentation, or lack of understanding the application.  

Where is the business case?

The focus should start with improving the business process, not replacing an application or system. From my private sector experience it makes very little sense to replace a system without first validating that the toolset is being supported with consistent and effective business processes. So should the public sector really spend valuable tax payer dollars and not look at the process first? No, in order to meet our objectives of providing a better customer experience at lower cost with improved efficiency, we simply must prioritize the process evaluation. 

  ​Often small changes from the business side can result in significant improvements in functionality and service delivery 

With IT customers, often the application becomes synonymous to the problem. Then there is a perception that “if we simply change the application, the issues related to the application will go away.”  In my experience, after hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are spent, the issues simply migrate to the new application over time.  

Don't overlook the fundamentals

An organization should first and foremost be focused on the services that the organization provides and how to deliver those services more effectively, independent of an application. The application is simply the method of delivery. I have seen great tools being used so inefficiently due to lack of process definition that they fail, and I have seen average tools exceed expectations due to the organizations mature and sound processes.  

Often small changes from the business side can result in significant improvements in functionality and service delivery. The average toolset can succeed as long as we are asking the right questions. Did we examine the business process in addition to hardware and software that deliver the service? Did we determine which change will make the greatest impact?  What I’m often times advocating for is what I call de-customization. I see applications that have been customized to the point of being unrecognizable. Often during the time of discovery I find that a “Modernization” was not needed at all or not as drastic a change as was initially thought.

Innovation

I often get the question “how do the public and private sector differ?” The private sector is concentrated on creating added value through a product or service with a focus on high returns on investment through innovation. This focus facilitates cost effective improvement and change. Managers that embrace and adapt this focus thrive and succeed. The public sector is different in that innovation, be it cost effective or not, is often restricted by a bureaucracy that prevents prompt action. All too often the least opposed option for many applications is a total replacement. Small game changing, strategic modifications can be stalled for months, or even overturned, while working their way through the approval process. We often have to fight just as hard for $5000 changes as we do $2 million changes.

Private vs. Public view

In my brief two years in the public sector, I understand the many ways that the public sector is not a business. In a business, the structure would allow for that company to generate an income to benefit the business. A government is not operating by that rule. This said, there are certain philosophies that can be learned from the private sector business model to benefit the public sector model when conducting business with citizens and among the various government agencies. In private industry I followed one truism. We are taking the right actions if the end result is good for our shareholders, and good for our customers. If not, what should we be expending the resources and capital on?

The public sector should be concerned with the same philosophy. The priorities of the public sector are to,

1) Promote economic growth by improving the way we interact with business and citizens,
2) Provide exceptional customer service to our citizens by running an efficient and effective State Government.

Addressing these two factors increase our State’s share price by creating a business growth environment in which companies want to operate and citizens want to live.

Process Maturity

Regardless of whether you work in a private or public service organization, process maturity, and continuous improvement can extend the useful life of an existing application and provide essential value to its customers and users. Process change and continuous improvement can be instituted with autonomy within an organization and is not something that needs to run the gauntlet of bureaucracy. No step or task is too small to be above review for process improvement.

Once a process is documented and consistent, and the technology is understood, changing that process becomes meaningful and effective. Successfully tie your documented improvement to measureable business results and communicate the results within the agency and to your customers.

Finally, remember that a business process along with the technology needs continuous constant validation. The public sector can challenge their organizations by asking the question, “If the public had a choice, would they be doing business with us?”

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