Wednesday, May 7, 2008

New and Improved!

CIOs rarely receive credit for keeping the trains running on time . Instead, they receive credit for implementing new applications and cool infrastructure features. The challenge is that 80% of IT resources are needed to maintain existing applications and infrastructure, leaving 20% of the total IT budget to be spent on new work. When you consider the multi-year larger projects, the must do compliance issues, and the tyranny of the urgent, there is very little left over to focus on discretionary innovation.

A cutting edge application can rapidly become a legacy system if the stakeholders feel that IT has lost the ability to respond to the needs of the users. What is the best strategy to keep the users happy and make the organization feel that IT is constantly innovating? Here's my approach:

Establish Strong Governance
Governance committees have three major purposes. They provide a process for prioritizing new requests, they establish a team of champions for the application, and they provide a forum for education about an application's features and benefits. Whenever I hear that an application is non-intuitive, has ceased to be innovative or lacks critical features, most of the time it's a governance problem. Do not replace the application, establish a multi-stakeholder governance committee as your first step.

Implement small continuous improvements instead of big bang new applications
A few times in the history of my organizations, stakeholders outside of IT have decided that wholesale replacement of applications or massive new implementations will solve workflow issues. In each case, the issues turned out to be non-IT process problems or weak governance caused by internal politics. The problem with big bang new applications is that they consume all available IT resources and often require existing applications to be frozen for months (if not years) while the new implementation progresses. Lack of progress in existing applications causes even more frustration and by the time the new application is ready, it's common that needs have changed and the new application is no longer the nirvana it was once thought to be. Making constant small changes in response to constantly evolving customer needs is the best way to achieve satisfaction.

Communicate broadly
For the past decade, I've written an email to everyone in the organization at least once a month describing the latest in IT innovations. With the increase in sensitivity to Spam and broadcast email, I've replaced that communication with blogging. My recent blogs about Integrating the Medical Record, Providing Decision Support, and Clinical Documentation were all in response to internal customer questions about strategy, new features, and priorities. I use blogs, emails, and in person presentations to celebrate IT successes and to educate naysayers.

Enhance the user interface
Just as many people are attracted to new car models because of changes in style or color, users find a new user interface to be a sign of innovation. Especially with the web, it's important to evolve user interfaces to embrace a modern look and feel. The late 1990's were about lists of links. The early 2000's were about graphical elements and color. The mid 2000's were about clean interfaces with blues and whites. 2008 is about pastels, brushed steel, and effective use of screen real estate. All my organizations are now implementing modern 2008 looks to our internal and external web applications.

Run Focus groups and do surveys
As a corollary to governance, it's important to get feedback from the trenches. Doing usability testing with Focus groups and getting candid feedback from a large number of stakeholders via surveys is an effective way to measure the pulse of the organization. When I get detailed feedback, I often find that the issues which are most bothersome to users are the easiest to fix, such as relabeling a button, changing a screen layout or improving workflow through refinement of a minor feature.

Thus, continuous incremental improvement driven by strong governance is the path to success. For me, 2008, has been more about people than technology. My governance groups are stronger than ever and the buzz is that "New and Improved" applications are rolling out faster than ever.

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