IT IS A LESSON that too many CIOs learn the hard way: sometimes fixing your organisation’s IT woes is just not enough. No matter how good your ideas appear on paper or how far-reaching your strategic plans, you still have to sell them to the rest of the staff if you want them to succeed.
It is a lesson Muhammad Tariq Khan, manager of the Information Management and Technology (IMT) division of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), learned first-hand as he guided his organisation through a long and comprehensive infrastructure replacement project. Spurred on by a commitment from the agency’s director-general to approach IT in more strategic fashion, improvements made to NPWS systems over the past three years have seen the government agency make what Khan describes as “a quantum leap in its IT capability”. However, convincing employees to come along for the ride was not always an easy task.
“Around here, we like to say that a job well done is only half of the job,” says Khan. “The other half is to market that job well done.”
As the agency responsible for maintaining NSW’s parks and reserves, NPWS faces several distinct challenges. At the top of the list are the difficulties posed by the highly decentralised nature of the organisation itself. Responsible for overseeing close to six million hectares of parks and reserves — more than 7 per cent of all land in NSW — NPWS maintains well over a hundred offices, ranging from large metropolitan office buildings that house hundreds of staff to small buildings in remote rural areas occupied by only a handful of part-time employees.
Keeping these disparate offices connected and abreast of the latest policy updates has always been a challenge for the organisation, but in 2000 the agency embarked on a multi-year plan to overhaul the agency’s IT infrastructure, which saw NPWS install a new intranet and expand its wide area network (WAN) connectivity dramatically.
Such steps brought the organisation right up to the leading edge of government technology use, but as Khan quickly discovered, not all problems can be solved by technology alone. In fact, NPWS’s own culture proved to be one of the biggest obstacles that Khan encountered along the way.
“This is an organisation in which a lot of people are very passionate about what they do,” Khan says. “They’re not just here to do a job, they’re here to do the work that they are passionate about, which is conservation work.
“Many of those people have been with the organisation for a long time and they have been doing things a certain way and they feel that it’s the right way. When technology comes it brings change, and a change in work practices as well. To sell that change and bring people on board — that is a serious challenge.”
Off the Beaten Path
Khan’s IMT group is not very large — about 50 people, including a handful of contractors — but its area of responsibility covers a broad range of IT requirements, both geographically and technologically. IMT is charged with maintaining some 2200 desktops spread across 150 sites throughout NSW, many in areas that lack adequate phone lines, never mind access to the kind of broadband Internet connections and the other communications facilities that most organisations in urban settings take for granted.
Overseeing such a disparate collection of offices is not easy, especially when the same policies govern all equally, whether it is issuing camping permits in a natural reserve hundreds of hectares in size or helping to reduce bushfire hazards in the Sydney suburbs. Keeping every site on the same page policy-wise has always been troublesome, a problem the overhaul of the agency’s IT systems was intended to solve.
The spark that ignited the change in attitude at NPWS was the arrival of new director-general Brian Gilligan in 1998. Gilligan mandated a change in the way NPWS thought about technology, insisting that the organisation do away with the piecemeal approach that characterised the agency’s use of IT in the past and replace it with strategic vision that emphasises the achievement of long-range goals through the gradual accumulation of small, deliverable IT projects.
Previously, says Khan, funding for IT was allocated according to priority — an approach that delivered limited success at best. “Before the new director-general came on board, you’d get bits and pieces here and there so that everything would keep on running,” says Khan. “But the new director-general and the executive team made a decision to invest strategically in different aspects. So instead of giving bits and pieces here and there, they said: ‘Okay, for a year or two we’ll invest in this and then we’ll invest in another thing, so we achieve what we need to achieve in one area before moving on to the next.’ It’s now more of a strategic investment.”
The arrival of the new director-general also meant the arrival of a new philosophy at NPWS, one that recognised IT was crucial to the agency’s service delivery model going into the new millennium. On the brink of a major Y2K upgrade, the heads of the NPWS realised the time was right to overhaul the organisation’s key IT investments and formulate a concrete plan for the future. “That plan specifically spells everything out with strategies that have been developed by the key business contributors in respect of these systems,” explains Khan.
In the past NPWS offices were a mix of information rich and information poor. Before the agency devised an overall strategic IT plan, each area of the agency had to come up with funding to buy their equipment on their own. “Certain areas would make it a high priority and they would get good equipment, but other areas might not make it a priority and they would not have good systems,” says Khan. “Staff were frustrated. In one place, I heard they had to go back to pen and pencil.
“Now there’s a common platform and common infrastructure regardless of the location and funding — everybody gets the same basics,” Khan says.
Making the Leap
Connectivity sits at the core of NPWS’s strategic plan for IT. “The crux of the matter was that with the wide distribution of offices and our organisational structure, we realised that having good connectivity through WAN accessibility was a fundamental issue,” Khan says. “Out west, an office might have a copy of policy which is two years old, but in the north they might have a copy of policy that is just six months old. Both sets of people are working under the same policy but with different versions — and maybe different rules.”
NPWS constructed its plan around the organisation’s two most important IT investments: its SAP ERP system and a Lotus Notes collaboration environment. Previously only 27 out of NPWS’s more than 150 sites were connected to the agency’s intranet. Now that figure stands at 80 and growing. Most of these sites have been linked to the agency’s WAN via a system that enables workers to establish a link through the Internet that gives them access to the intranet via a secure communication channel. “We have effectively doubled our connectivity,” says Khan, “and more are on the way.”
According to Khan the key benefit of this investment in the intranet is that NPWS now has a “pool facility”, which acts as single central repository of policy information and also a means of distributing the latest circulars and other relevant policy documents. “Anybody who needs to know the latest information, that’s the place to go to. It’s a huge leap forward,” Khan says.
As it turned out, however, that leap proved to be too large for some of the agency’s employees. NPWS employees encompass a broad spectrum of skills, including widely varying levels of technological aptitude. On one hand, the agency employs PhDs and highly-educated scientific staff who are used to working with IT on a daily basis. But the agency also employs hundreds of operational staff — the people who actually work on the ground within Australia’s national parks and conservation areas. Their day-to-day responsibility is to maintain those areas in such a fashion that they can be enjoyed by the public today, yet still be conserved for generations to come.
“We have PhDs who work on scientific issues and we have people who struggle with numeracy and literacy issues,” admits Khan. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t good at what they do, only that they are not necessarily very good at the numeracy and literacy aspects involved with the latest IT applications.”
Regardless, the agency has to rely on accurate information provided by all of its employees, be they PhDs or park rangers in remote conservation areas. The agency needs its people in the field to gather the information — information that is then fed into vast data repositories so that experts can compare it with historical data, analyse the findings and make recommendations for the future. One example is the measuring of the distribution patterns and population levels of threatened species. Quality data is needed to identify best those species under threat and help plan for their recovery.
“The technology came in so rapidly that it took some people by surprise,” says Khan. “We had a bit of a skills gap and as a result, a lot of people became apprehensive that there was too much coming, that they would not be able to absorb or handle that amount of technology given to them.”
Winning Over Workers
One area where Khan encountered resistance was in the agency’s adoption of a new e-mail application. Khan and the heads of business agreed on Lotus Domino as the platform for its Web site and intranet. The solution was chosen to create synergy within skill sets; people would be able to collaborate on projects that could then be posted easily to the Web or made accessible to other employees via the NPWS intranet. “This would be hard to maintain if we had gone for different solutions,” says Khan.
When NPWS began to roll out the new Lotus system, complaints from staff were not long in coming. Many had been using Microsoft Outlook and preferred its user interface to the new Notes client. Before long, Khan was presented with a study comparing the benefits of Notes and Outlook, and when word got out that Notes was not deemed as user-friendly as Outlook in the report, the trickle of queries turned into a flood. People were looking to Khan for answers.
Khan found that winning staff over meant turning to an unusual source for his selling point: NPWS’s own virus problems. “Since we moved to Lotus Notes and put an antivirus strategy in place there hasn’t been a single virus in our organisation in the last three years,” he says. “That’s something people can relate to. They can accept that if [no viruses] is the outcome, then it’s worth the trouble of changing their practices.”
Khan also knows that nothing sells a project like success. The bean counters at NPSW were won over when the new system began to deliver swift improvements in the time it took to close accounts. Not long after, the new system was pumping out detailed reports based on the analysis of field data, gathered painstakingly by NPWS staff and volunteers over the course of days, months and years. Previously, the agency had one system in its Sydney head office and a range of others distributed throughout offices in the rest of the state — all with varying levels of connectedness and capability.
“It used to take around six weeks to gather all the information and prepare it,” Khan says. “Now you can go to SAP and get a report whenever you want. If you reduce six weeks to one week, the business is saving five weeks straight away there. That can only be achieved through the accessibility made possible by connectivity.”
Time for a Change
“What we’re talking about is really a change management issue,” Khan declares. “The basic issue is that once people are used to something, it is hard for them to change.”
However, employees who did not want to change their work practices were far from the only hurdle Khan and the IMT team faced. Other employees were reluctant to get the requisite training for fear they might be singled out for not being tech savvy. “Some people were very apprehensive that if they went into a classroom environment they’d be exposed as less literate about computers,” Khan says.
The solution? To develop a training framework that suits the diversity of the needs within NPWS. For example, in addition to its primary management and conservation applications, NPWS also has about 50 secondary applications that Khan refers to as “small systems”. These applications are not frequently accessed, but are mainly designed to assist people with specialised tasks, like reptile licensing or requests for pest management.
Firearms management is a prime example of one such task. All firearms within NPWS must be stored according to licence requirements, and employees can only handle them if they have special training. The applications governing this system are infrequently accessed but any error has very serious consequences, not to mention the fact that it is a service usually required in the most wild and remote locations under NPWS’s sphere of influence. “Systems like these are small in their size but their contribution to the business is not small,” Khan says.
As Khan discovered at NPWS, the nature and culture of one’s own organisation can often be one of the biggest challenges a CIO faces. “A lot of people who work for this organisation, they do it because they are passionate about what they do,” he says. “Some have been with the organisation for decades. It can be hard for some of them to change their approach to what they do. If they have to change their practices to gain efficiencies within the organisation, there can be resistance.”
In the case of NPWS, the agency suffered from having so many kinds of staff spread over such a large area. According to Khan, staff out in the field offices were prone to develop an attitude along the lines of: “Head office doesn’t know what’s going on, we do.”
“This is one of the setbacks of technical geeks,” says Khan. “They are very good back-room players — most are smart enough to build and launch rockets — but when it comes to marketing and communicating, there are very few who can strike a balance between the technology and the business. That’s where I try to focus. It’s good to achieve sound results, but we then try to market those results as well.”
Khan said that if the past three years as head of IMT has taught him anything, it is to have more patience with staff. Any CIO who intends to bring about significant changes in their organisation should be prepared to debate with staff and engage them in what Khan calls “logical reasoning, explanation and consultation”.
“You need to communicate with your staff because they’re your key asset and resource,” Khan says. “Whatever is achieved should be ‘we’ achieved, not ‘I’ achieved. That ‘we’ should always be prevailing. We implanted organisational change in our IT division without many problems because it was done in consultation with staff. They were given the logic behind what was being done. They were even given the opportunity to put their views forward about titles, because for some people titles are very important.
“You need a reasonably good organisational structure within IT, one that’s articulated in a plan and acted upon, but staff need to be given the opportunity to contribute,” Khan says.
Indeed, consideration for government workers is a topic that’s close to Khan’s heart. The phrase “good enough for government” is simply not good enough as far as Khan is concerned. He bristles at even the slightest suggestion that work done within NPWS falls short of similar efforts in the private sector. “Working in the public sector has its advantages and its disadvantages, but I would like to challenge that attitude held by the private sector and ask them to take another look at the amount of effort, dedication and passion people in the public sector put into their jobs,” Khan says.
“It would be worthwhile to do some benchmarking between people in public and private sector IT, because there might be some eye openers there. I think the amount of work and effort that we have put in and what we have achieved in the past three years is worth comparing to similar sized private sector organisations.”