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How to Peel an IT Modernization Onion

IT modernization requires major investments in energy, time and workforce reform for governments at all levels. Unsurprisingly, it’s often difficult starting such a change. For agencies struggling with their first step, onions can provide the inspiration they need.

Onions are infamous for their multiple layers, and they’re also notorious for containing acids that can make people cry. It’s a combination with valuable insights for the public sector. IT modernization is like an onion, as it unfolds in stages and can cause tears if handled recklessly.

“There are many challenges with deploying new IT capabilities,” Joe Wood, Senior Consulting Architect at Red Hat, said during a GovLoop virtual summit Wednesday. “It’s hard. It may even take an act of Congress to get something going. There are many moving pieces that have to fall into place.”

Wood said that IT modernization and onions are similar as both can sting if approached too quickly and with little caution.

“You’re going to have some tears of pain at first,” he said. “That’s because change is hard. You’re going to have some folks kicking and screaming. They’re used to being in silos for too long. But they’ll become tears of joy when we deploy this huge system in an organization.”

Red Hat is an open-source software provider. Wood recommended separating IT modernization into five layers: the “high-level” request, the “real” request, the organization, the deployment approach and education, support and iteration.

Taylor Biggs, Consulting Cloud Architect at Red Hat, said that the first stage involves understanding your leadership’s needs and making sure your agency’s modernization efforts launch correctly.

“Communication and expectation setting is key to the process,” he said. “What are they asking for? What does success look like? Let’s find out.”

The “real” request, Biggs continued, involves taking leadership’s desires and aligning them with the necessary business and technical requirements for modernization.

Wood said that after this, understanding your organization’s hierarchy is key. He added that involving significant stakeholders and breaking down silos often makes the difference for agencies.

“You have to look at the organization and start mapping these requests and requirements to people within it,” he said. “We also have to look at the culture of security there. Unfortunately, this layer often gets overlooked.”

Agencies that survive the planning process can ultimately deploy their IT modernization efforts. Those that do so without thinking long-term, however, can have persistent trouble.

“We’re not typically working in a green field where you can build whatever we want,” Wood said. “We need to look at the capacities that we have from an infrastructure perspective.

An example of the wrong approach is an agency that does not consider its data storage needs before modernizing. This organization could run out of space for its information in the years ahead.

Biggs noted, however, that even successful IT modernization isn’t the end for agencies. He added that organizations must keep their workforces aware of and ready for additional technology changes.

“In this world we live in, software is going to change all the time and we need to plan for that all the time,” he said. “After laying down 1.0, start planning your 2.0. You’ve got to have these post-mortems. Your biggest detractor this time could be your biggest contributor next time.”

Biggs added that agencies wrestling with IT modernization should keep pushing forward once they’ve begun the process.

“We like to say patience, persistence, collaboration and communication are your keys to success,” he said.

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