The world is changing rapidly, thanks to IT – faster than it ever has before. This fundamental fact has to be factored in to every decision federal agencies make about adopting technology to change how government works.
That’s one conclusion to be drawn from the remarks of Dr. David Bray, CIO of the Federal Communications Commission, at the BMC Exchange Federal conference.
Bray is not your typical federal executive. He’s got more than 120,000 Twitter followers. His speeches are laced with references to Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot,” the Earth. He talks about the Greek and Latin roots of words such as “leader” and “expertise.” He doesn’t use acronyms, and he actually doesn’t talk about the technology itself very much.
Instead, he talks about change – what’s driving it, how to think about it, what to do with it.
“The next seven years will see more change than the last 20 years combined,” he told the audience. By 2022, the planet will have 8 billion people, but an estimated 75 billion to 300 billion networked devices because of the rapid spread of the Internet of Things (IoT), he explained. Google search will have to change how it works, because it won’t be able to search the 96 zettabytes of global content. (For readers unfamiliar with zettabytes, or ZBs: 1000 gigabytes is a terabyte; 1000 terabytes is an exabyte; 1000 exabytes is a zettabyte.)
“In a survey that we conducted last year, 92 percent of respondents indicated that adopting significant new technologies is important to their agencies long-term success. From embracing the world of the IoT to harnessing new monitoring techniques to ensure cybersecurity, federal IT needs to embrace change so it can enable agencies to complete their missions,” said Joel Dolisy, CIO, SolarWinds
The four Vs of technology – velocity, volume, volatility, and veracity – are creating change at an exponential rate of speed and leaving turbulence in their wake, he said. For leaders, the challenge is how to address this.
First, “diversity trumps ability,” he said. “A diverse group will trump the experts.” Non-experts will approach challenges with their own unique perspectives, while experts tend to ignore unconventional ideas, he explained. But diversity only works if all the participants have the same shared goals. “If the goal-related values of the different groups are not shared, the crowd may splinter into factions.”
Next is “power to the edge,” Bray said. He reminded the audience of how, less than a month after 9/11, a new threat emerged when anthrax-laced letters began to show up. “Several well-meaning folks were trying to apply a top-down approach to rapidly changing events,” he said. Those on the front lines, “the edge … is going to more of what’s going on.”
The third point Bray made is the power of an ecosystem. “No one organization can go it alone anymore,” he said. “I talk about public service rather than the government [because] if the public wants to get involved, they can. The same is true for organizations.” Over the past three or four years, he observed, non-state entities have been using this effectively.
Finally, it is important to be aware of the conflict between openness and risk.
Bray showed a photo of Chester Nimitz as a young officer. In 1905, Nimitz accidentally ran aground the boat he was commanding. Yet in World War II he was made a 5-star admiral, one of only two the Navy has ever created. In an Internet age, that probably wouldn’t have happened, and the United States would have been far worse off in the Pacific. “The Internet has made it open and transparent, [but we are] less willing to tolerate mistakes, and we get leaders who are risk averse,” he said.
Bray suggested that the drive for organizations to be efficient has to be modified. He cited his own agency’s decision to eliminate all its in-house servers; last Labor Day weekend, the FCC finished moving all its data either to the cloud or to a commercial service provider.
“Back in 1990, the mandate for any CIO was making the business efficient. But in a turbulent environment, the number one thing is speed, agility,” he said. “What cloud gets us at the FCC [is that] we could do something at one-sixth the price, but also in one-third to one-half the time.”
“As new technologies are embraced, so too must new techniques for monitoring and managing an IT infrastructure – no matter where it sits, on-premises, in the cloud or a combination of both,” added Dolisy. “Hybrid environments, while decreasing costs and providing agility, can also create added complexity. Without the right tools and procedures must be identified and installed to ensure that there are no new vulnerabilities and that service is still provided at an acceptable level for the agency’s needs.”