All organizational change has at its root the insight of a single individual, writes industry observer Lou Bertin. And there's room for optimism that even government understands this.

Lou Bertin, Contributor

October 24, 2002

5 Min Read

C.K. Prahalad, Harvey C. Fruehauf professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, recently put forth the following fascinating proposition, namely that "organizations can't be agile, but managers can be agile."

In a model of unassailable logic, he's saying simply that all organizational change has at its root the insight of a single individual; that while change can and should be driven from the top of any organization, it must begin in a single mind, whether that mind is at the top, bottom, or middle of the organizational ladder.

There's no arguing with Prahalad's model in the private sector. In any nonmonopoly market, the factors that drive individuals to create change are manifest: the need for competitive advantage (sustainable or otherwise), the mandate for profitability, and the fiscal and professional benefits that accrue to those who do their jobs better than their peers or their counterparts at competing organizations.

There's no shortage of motivating factors--most of them with a healthy degree of enlightened self-interest behind them--that prompt individuals to display their mental agility and for the organizations for which they work to embrace and create the change that's the hallmark of any successful organization.

But what of our public-sector colleagues? Without the cattle prod that is capitalism and its need for profitability to provide impetus, whence comes the incentive for change? In at least one very real sense, the motive for change proves professor Prahalad's thesis: that change comes from the agility of the individual minds at work.

But what about the second part of his thesis: that agile individual managers make for agile organizations? Here's where the view of the public sector becomes more than a little problematic.

If some of the views I heard expressed recently at a government technology symposium are valid (and there's no reason to believe they aren't), there's room for optimism and much more room for skepticism that the insights of individuals will ever see the light of day.

First, the good news: the overwhelming majority of the federal, state, and local government IT professionals I've been speaking with lately are as smart and motivated as any of their private-sector counterparts. They universally give voice to the screaming need for governments and their agencies to abandon the most hidebound of their operating philosophies and procedures. In some cases, this means (gasp!) eliminating the need for documents to be written in Elizabethan English and embossed with a raised seal. Hooray for progress!

In other cases, the vision of these individuals has lead to real progress that gives palpable life to the notion of E-government. Allowing, for example, multiple agencies on a statewide level to share data so that a prospective small business needn't wrestle with multiple, duplicative applications as it seeks government-provided (or required) licenses, operating permits, office space, financing and the like, all of which are handled by separate agencies.

What's worrisome are the prevailing attitudes among many topmost administrators within the federal, state, and local agencies that would be affected. One viewpoint, expressed by an individual who shall go nameless to protect his utterly outlandish, inside-the-Beltway myopia, has it that presidentially appointed agency directors and staffs have every motivation to embrace E-government because "they have a stake in seeing that the president is re-elected." If any sitting president ever received even a single vote because some federal agency has improved its CRM capabilities or embraced the proven best (or even pretty good) practices of private-sector companies performing the same basic functions, it comes as news to me.

More comforting to all of us who pay taxes is the honest, informed viewpoint of Ron Miller, assistant director and chief information officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Miller acknowledges the "highly risk-averse" nature of government and admits, with more than a little pain in his voice, that for government agencies at any level "looking at things like E-government is often seen by employees and managers as being simply too hard to do."

The reason for hope comes from Miller's accompanying comment that such thinking "has to change and we have to make it change" in an environment where shrinking budgets and an increasingly demanding "clientele" (i.e., all of us) is prompting a break from the status quo.

Even more telling is Miller's flat statement that "my biggest worry every morning is whether we're doing all we can to use technology the best we can."

With no profit to seek, with no bonus and perks down the line, with no competitors breathing down their necks, there's precious little to motivate even the most agile of minds to seek change and all of the pain that ensues when the familiar is abandoned. Yet there are innumerable agile minds out there looking to drag their government organizations, kicking and screaming in some cases, into the 21st century.

In a word, the biggest motivator is the simple, powerful notion of service, as in "public service." The old saw has it that Americans always "get the government they deserve." If my conversations lately with many public-sector administrators are any indication, we may be in for much better than we deserve.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Larry Olson, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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