leading IT projects

Persistent, unrelenting development is the IT department's new must-have. Here's what counts...

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Persistent, unrelenting development is the IT department's new must-have. Here's what counts...

Product managers are the new development managers.

Next time you feel a little stressed at work, spare a thought for Dr Steve Hodgkinson, the CIO of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.

Hodgkinson has over six million customers to satisfy, a long list of technology projects to deliver, a minister to report to, and recently described his workload as consisting of  “… overwhelming demand for digital solutions across all areas of the department's operations and those of the health and human services sectors. This demand spans 'fixing the digital basics' through to advanced applications of the latest technologies.”

But technology won’t help him to meet those challenges, Hodgkinson said, unless it offers a platform and services that lets his team deliver without constantly having to re-invent the wheel.

“My problem space is not so much working out what 'smarty pants' uses of technology should be adopted,” he said.

Instead, he sees his task as “how to increase the department's capacity to implement digital transformation initiatives by increasing the cadence of our application development and solution implementation processes in order to accelerate organisational learning.”

Hodgkinson’s response is a process he calls “Platform+Agile”.

“This is founded on the simple and common sense idea that we should use a standardised and well proven platform to build a new application,” Hodgkinson explained. “

The platform is reusable from one application to another. It enables us to become more efficient and productive. It makes us faster and reduces the number of variables and unknowns ... and hence reduces risk and cost.”

Hodgkinson is not alone in advocating development of a platform from which IT can build more and better applications, and evolve them more frequently.

Andrew Wiles, a partner in KPMG’s technology advisory team, says the firm’s practice often involves efforts to build a platform that enables more frequent and faster innovation.

“We very much look at what is best practice, both within an industry and within a service management framework,” Wiles says. “That means incident management, but also problem management and change management.”

That base layer of services management is important because organisations cannot tolerate business interruptions that come from downtime, since so many products are digitally-delivered.

A solid platform is also critical to make digital products adaptable, so that rapid innovation becomes possible and businesses can compete more effectively.

Wiles thinks a good service management framework delivers both outcomes.

 “It is about helping organisations evolve to deliver services management so it supports both one end of the scale where you've got DevOps-type organisations and the legacy side of the shop where parts of the businesses aren't really needing agility and speed of change,” KPMG’s Wiles says.

All change!

Wiles’ mention of enabling DevOps is notable, because the practice aims to liberate software developers so that they can deliver more changes, more often, to make organisations more agile and hopefully more innovative.

Analyst firm Gartner recently said that DevOps and other agile methodologies are now all-but compulsory, and coined the term “ContinuousNext” to describe the attitude businesses need to adopt for their products.

“Take Amazon - nobody asks them whether they are a retailer or a tech company any more,” Gartner vice president and analyst Michael Warrilow told the firm’s Symposium and itXpo in late 2018. “They win by being both.”

“Tesla is a tech company in the car industry. Apple is a tech company that’s now in the health industry.”

“Digital technology and product innovation are becoming indivisible in all industries,” he said.

KPMG’s Wiles agrees, but points out that the platform needed to make rapid, continuous, innovation possible, needs best practice baked in.

Wiles’ and KPMG’s preferred tool to establish a services management framework is ServiceNow, because he feels it offers best practice processes that can ready an IT team to enable continuous innovation.

“Our approach is all about making sure that when you configure a tool set such as Service Now you don't customise the hell out of it for them,” Wiles says. “It's all about configuration over customisation.”

New roles

Service management also brings changes to IT teams.

DevOps sees software developers self-provision IT infrastructure rather than waiting for it to be delivered by the IT team. Today, most developers are happily ignorant of the nuances of infrastructure operations, but a good DevOps engineer needs some expertise to thrive.

“You need different skillsets and capabilities within the organisation – more T-shaped or cross-shaped people,” Wiles suggests. A T-shaped person, he explained, has “a deep tap root in a particular capability” plus a broad skill set in other relevant matters. A cross-shaped person has several intersecting skills.

Gartner’s Warrilow suggests another key new role that’s become necessary, that of the “digital product manager.

“Leading organisations are placing people into the new pivotal role of digital product manager and molding team structures around them,” he said. Such people “will apply design thinking, and agile methodologies to shape user experiences.”

They’ll expect “weekly or sometimes even daily product updates” and by doing so will supersede conventional IT project management.

“Products are paramount so we will organise around them,” he said. “With projects we were delivering, with products we [IT] are owning. With projects you [IT] were behind the stage, with products you are front of stage.”

“With projects, you have milestones and completion, with products you are continuously creating the next, better, business.”

And with the kind of approach Wiles suggests and Hodgkinson has defined and adopted, IT teams not only satisfy the business, they can earn its trust to become co-authors of innovation efforts.

Hodgkinson said the Platform+Agile approach has seen the Department of Health and Human Services “has come to trust us to spend money wisely.” The result was a lift in the IT team’s discretionary budget from $20m to $80m.

“We are seen to be able to deliver new apps,” Hodgkinson said. “We can do that because we start with a platform.”

Subsequent to the preparation of this story, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services submitted entries in the iTnews Benchmark Awards that mention some of the work described above. The author has therefore recused himself from the judging panel for the relevant categories.

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