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35 Years Later, How One Group Stays Relevant In IT

Since 1979, the Association of Federal Information Resource Management (AFFIRM) has been meeting with industry and government groups to talk about IT challenges. 35 years is a long time for any organization to have a lasting impact, but for IT it may as well be a century.

Back when AFFIRM launched, computers did not exist at OMB. There were no cellphones, tablets or even the internet. So how does an organization evolve over 35 years and stay relevant?

Eric Won is the Director of Performance and Program Evaluation in the Office of Entrepreneurial Development at the Small Business Administration. He is also the President of AFFIRM. Barry West is the CIO at the Pension Benefit Guaranty and AFFIRM’s VP.

Won and West told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that AFFIRM has withstood the test of time by staying true to its mission of education.

What is AFFIRM?

“AFFIRM has evolved over the years, when it founded in 1979, it was about basic technology that was being rolled out in spots across the federal government. At that point the White House, GSA and a number of other IT leaders in government decided it was time for us to start organizing ourselves and understanding the new implications of this new animal, information technology. Historically, it is focused on the education of IT and how you can use this technology to better manage the federal government,” said Won.

There are lots organizations out there, why makes AFFIRM unique?

“I think we have remained, because while the sea of information technology has changed over time, AFFIRM has remained true to our mission, we are a non-profit, volunteer, educational organization, we have not wandered from that task. That is something that is always going to be needed. We are finding that attendance and membership has been going up consistently. We are in the right space,” said Won.

“I go back and think 15-20 years ago when I was at GSA, when I first started going to AFFIRM, it was because it was not only affiliated with education, but we were actually hosting it at a major university (George Washington). AFFIRM has remained close to our ties of promoting education, giving out scholarships and really keeping to our core values,” said West.

Bring people together in a safe space?

“I have actually taken a lot of my directors out and attended AFFIRM events and it has sparked a lot of different views from them. They are seeing how people are using cloud, big data, mobility and tackling a lot of the security issues. AFFIRM has created that informal network where people have this place where they feel comfortable. They can share ideas. We are seeing more and more government folks attend as well,” said West.

“One of the advantages of AFFIRM is we have a really consistent rhythm. We have programs every month. The rate at which change is occurring in technology today, you really can’t wait a year to understand what is happening out there. We try not to plan an entire year’s agenda in advance, we try to be as current as possible, so when you attend an AFFIRM event you get the latest news. It is not something we have been planning for a whole year,” said Won.

  • Key Insight: “What we are working on now is responding to another change that has occurred, it is becoming more and more difficult for government to attend events. We are working on taking our events to our members virtually. We are developing webinar and webcasting capacities so that on a more regular and frequent basis, we will be able to get information out,” said Won.

The challenges facing government have also evolved?

“A lot of that collaboration is being fuelled by the younger generation. I can even see that shift with our teleworking program where the older folks see a few drawbacks. They feel they need to be in the office. The younger generation feels perfectly comfortable working anywhere, not just from home, but from wherever they need to work. I think you are going to see more and more of that,” said West.

  • Key Insight: “One of the things we have been working on for a number of years is collaboration online. When employees stay home and do teleworking, for the most part they are interacting one-on-one. At the point where we can start doing many-to-many, where we start having online collaboration more prevalent and more accessible I think you will see even more people glad to be working from home,” said Won.

How has the role of the CIO evolved over the years?

“We are seeing a lot of different positions still evolve around the CIO. For example, the Chief Data Officer. I think you are going to see more and more about the CDO, the private sector has been using that role for the past 10 years. I think you are going to see a surge around data. Data is so important, the data function has been hidden down in the data enterprise architecture group and I think what we are seeing is someone focused on data throughout the organization. It can be an evangelist who knows your meta-data, knows where your data duplication lies. That hasn’t been happening in the federal government,” said West.

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