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Why an information project became a cultural exercise at the Ministry for the Environment

Why an information project became a cultural exercise at the Ministry for the Environment

IT director, Neil Hurley, shares why implementing cloud-based information management was less about technology and more about cultural change

Implementing a cloud-based document management system successfully at New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment was less about technology investment, and more about the cultural change required to get people on-board and on-side.

Speaking at the recent OpenText Innovation Tour in Sydney, the department’s director of IT and project management, Neil Hurley, shared the steps he took to overhaul its enterprise-wide information management approach and bring MfE into the digital and cloud era.

MfE is the primary advisor on New Zealand environmental issues to the government, as well as advice on international environmental matters. This encompasses resource management through to fresh water, marine, air and climate change. The organisation has between 300 and 380 employees.

The main IT bugbear Hurley faced when he took up the IT director’s helm two-and-a-half years ago was its document management system. The application was sitting on very old infrastructure in a purpose-built server room with no disaster recovery, and as a result, couldn’t be moved to an as-a-service environment, a key ambition for the NZ government as a whole.

“Safe to say it was unsupported by the vendor, hadn’t been upgraded for 5-7 years and was the bane of most staff’s life in terms of doing their job,” Hurley told attendees. “We are a policy agency, so knowledge is really powerful to us, and this was our number one business critical app, but it wasn’t being cared for.

“That was our big challenge – how do we move away from a system users didn’t want to engage with, to one users wanted to engage with and use. Getting access to information and knowledge is critical to us to provide the advice we need to provide.”

MfE chose OpenText’s Enterprise Content management-as-a-system as its next-generation platform and rolled it out last year. The platform is used to capture the flow of all information from capture through to archiving and disposition and was deployed by OpenText Global Services and its partner Techtonics, supported by Datacom.

From risk mitigation to business enablement

While things may have started as an IT exercise, as MfE moved through the project, there was a shift away from business risk mitigation, to the power of getting a good handle on information and turning that into something useful and strategic for its staff, Hurley said.

“This was not a tech project largely – there’s clearly an IT component to it – but it’s mostly a business change activity,” Hurley explained. “We brought in a contract project manager to help with this, and I put him in front of 200 people after I’d made an update on our technology roadmap, in order to save the best til last: That we were replacing the document management system. Those 200 people stood up and gave us a round of applaud.

“This poor project manager immediately had this weight of expectation on him, because of what it meant to our organisation. To finally say we were doing this had a big impact on morale.”

Initially, Hurley said he expected about 80 per cent of investment cost went into the technology solution, and 20 per cent into business change.

“But in fact, 80 per cent of actual effort was in the business change,” he said. “The technology side was relatively simple… but putting that time and effort into supporting the organisation over a 12-month period, around why and how we’re changing and what everyone will get out of it, was a key take out. As a leader, that’s where you have to spend the time, as that’s the change you’ll see over sweating the technology change.”

There were plenty of business benefits to the project, Hurley continued.

“Firstly, we wanted to bring as many disparate data sources together as we could, but as we sat down to talk about what we really wanted to achieve, it was about eliminating risk,” he said. “We de-scoped lot of what we did in this project to focus on a document management system that could die at any time – I could recover the data but couldn’t put it on anything if I lost the app. So I had to focus on how quickly we could get onto the new app.

“I took a hard line with the team on things that looked good, but could potentially slow us down on getting onto the app. One thing we also started to do was add in the workflow side of things. This was for the area managing communications between us and the environment minister, which had been a very paper-based process.

“We wanted to move away from response to requests as a document, and into collaborative digital documents around the business.”

MfE had another separate Web-based system that was 10 years old and was recording and capturing these requests and where they were going.

“Putting that all into one system provided real efficiency gains, but also was a big business process exercise,” Hurley said.

The scale of the product MfE now has is hugely different to what the organisation had before, Hurley said.

“In our early prototyping, there was lot of enthusiasm from users about features wanting to do this and that. Having to ground people around why we commissioned the project without losing the enthusiasm was a key management challenge,” he said.

“We have committed to the organisation that this is a product we’ll be staying with for a long time, and we will add functionality to support the organisation to do what it does best. That’s meant user changes, team contacts, and so on, as well as asking them what they want, what they do, and build a dynamic relationship.”

Balancing IT needs with business change

Another thing Hurley has had to balance is business expectations with the risk mitigation and government aspects of the overall IT work.

“The things I worry about are not the things some people on the ground worry about – it’s boring things like putting all our content into one place,” he said. “We’ve migrated all content from our document management system to the OpenText content server, but we left behind shared drives that contain business records and information that need to be ported across, plus organisation records.

“But if I sit and talk to people in the organisation about some of the challenges are around the work they’ve got underway, it’s very much us moving from a policy demand perspective to thinking about co-creation of policy and design.

“So rather than sending big files in and out of building to multiple stakeholders, it’s about how do we create collaborative spaces to put documents out and collaborate better. That’s certainly an efficiency gain, but it’s also the information management challenge of having document replicated and being able to bring that back into the organisation centrally and easily.”

Hurley’s advice to anyone going through an information management project is to ensure executive support is there from the get go.

“There was us and New Zealand Transport Agency implementing at the same time, so we’re at the front of the pack in terms of moving into this new world of consuming services from the cloud,” he said. “As a result, executive support was huge for me. Our staff were behind doing this, but having the CEO’s support all the way through with regards to approach, and as a common capability, was key.”

Positioning the new platform in terms of impact to the organisation was another must.

“When I positioned this in terms of who we are and what we do, it wasn’t a hard argument,” Hurley said. “I could have spent lot of time on business case trying to identify a return on investment, how much efficiency we’d gained and attached a dollar to the investment, but fundamentally, it was about what the reputational risk to us was if we lose all this information and knowledge, or can’t respond quickly enough or in time.”

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