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5 things I've learned: John Wadeson

5 things I've learned: John Wadeson

Retiring Department of Human Services CIO, John Wadeson, reflects on his career in government IT

Department of Human Services CIO, John Wadeson

Department of Human Services CIO, John Wadeson

1. Manage people to outcomes

In IT, we hire a lot of people for their technical skills, not people management skills. The Centrelink contingent is more than 2000 people and the people management aspects are quite profound. We did a lot of personality assessments and a lot of IT people are in the high category. But many IT managers manage 80 per cent of their staff well and get caught up with the 20 per cent that can disrupt the others. If you can connect people to the outcomes of the organisation, it’s a powerful motivator.

For example, during recent crises we had people working on the ground to help with IT systems. If there is a culture in IT that we shamelessly fall back on, it is that IT people don’t like it when things fail — that’s part of the culture of information technology.

2. Ride commodity IT

IT is becoming easier because you can do a lot of things more quickly now. What were once yearly projects are completed in months. We have struggled to do what we want with technologies that were ‘not quite there’. In the early days, it was a hard slog and we argued: “Do we buy best of breed or pre-integrated?” You can say IT has become more complex, but there are such terrific devices now. Yes, it can get out of control and you can worry about it, but so long as you keep an eye on it, it can work in your favour.

3. Lead projects holistically

A CIO must have a long list of accomplishments and you can write a book about project management. CIOs have led a lot of successful projects but project leadership is even more important. In government the senior executive officers are responsible for the outcomes and the project manager is just as accountable. If a project doesn’t integrate with other things, however, it’s a failure — even if the project was successful. The rise of user-testing has been terrific, particularly when people in testing labs are independent of the project managers.

4. Build bridges between the private sector and government

At Centrelink IT, we learnt how to deal with government bureaucracy, but there is government and there is government. The private sector has a lot of dealings with government but I’ve seen people say, “Minister, your systems are insecure and we have a product that will solve that,” creating a view that IT is ‘out of control’, or ‘risky’. Some people say I go to too many conferences, but I make an effort to meet with private sector CIOs.

That’s an important part of being a CIO — to keep the networks going. Conferences are good for networking and we all learn from that.

5. Promote IT value

IT needs to have its own voice. There is a danger IT is being swamped by people who want to speak for IT, but it must have its own voice. Smart people work in IT and most of the technical knowledge of the business lies there. You have to find a way of having that heard within the organisation. You’ll never find business requirements for things that hold the company together.

It’s easy to let IT drift into the background and the challenge won’t get any easier for new CIOs. If IT is a key part of business, but reports into another business line, it’s a sign people don’t understand what it can do.

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