The city that I work for, Asheville, N.C., was recognized last week at the Code for America Technology Awards.
It is a big award and a big deal for many reasons that are relevant to government. But I also believe that the award was a hat tip to a general shift in how we should be organizing IT departments. (Full disclosure: I was a volunteer co-author of Code for America's book, Beyond Transparency.)
The award was given for an application that simplifies city data. Called SimpliCity, the app is a digital data front door for citizens, one that even my octogenarian father can use on his smart phone. Code for America recognized the app and the staff that wrote it because it was designed with usability principles and customer experience testing, and because it was designed using Lean Startup, Business Model Canvas, and developed in the light of day as an open source GitHub project.
What's relevant to enterprise IT is that this app is the tip of the iceberg. Everything happened because of cues that I took from Code for America (one of the most innovative organizations in any sector, bar none) to re-organize IT at my organization. Here's how it happened.
When our IT organization started dabbling in public participation about three years ago, one of our major forays was in the field of "open data," essentially the provisioning of automated, self-service data that is already open by state law. I saw the value because of the labor savings (no more manual data pulls) and improvement in customer service (24x7, immediate access).
I got pretty excited. When I get excited about something, I write about it, and give talks about it. I gave a talk on open data at an IT conference in 2012, expecting a warm reception. But the reception was anything but that. There were probably all of two people who "got it." The rest of the attendees at the conference were, to put it mildly, chilly. Someone actually said to me, "This isn't a role of IT! Why are you doing this?"
Now, in 2015, open data is super-hot. But three years ago, at the time of the conference, that attendee's comment to me was true. Open data was a skunkworks project, and we did not have an organizational mandate to do it. But I don't give up easily. So, I went back and had a great conversation with the chief executive of my organization, and got his buy-in to redefine IT and create a business unit for "public technology," to reorganize IT in order to recognize that, in the 21st century, IT is no longer simply an internal service department.
[Read about the Age of Algorithms.]
That, my friends, was a major shift.
In stark contrast to how IT operates today, we must reorganize to recognize that IT has an outward-facing role. This is not just true of government; it's true of every single company and organization. IT cannot possibly understand and react to the outside world if IT does not have at least a partial mission to interact with the outside world. If IT is insular, IT will never be on the cutting edge of emerging practices, almost by definition.
IT will never engage in usability testing if the naysayers within IT point to the org chart and say: "Look! It's not a role of IT to go out and interact with people!"
Your enterprise IT department may be awesome in many ways. But until you reorganize to enable staff to get out of the data center and into the wider world, it will be difficult for IT to do anything truly meaningful at your company.