Tuesday, October 30, 2007

e-Government Leadership, CIOs and e-Champions

I attended a seminar yesterday titled "The Human Factor in Re-engineering Government: e-Government Leadership, CIOs and e-Champions". I found it stimulating. It certainly included a number of speakers, each of whom had years of important and useful experience. The video is online in case you want to watch.

The emphasis of the speakers was on the importance of leadership from the top. Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of organizations are needed who understand ICT and its application in government, and who support the reengineering of the organizations that they head. Chief Information Officers (CIOs) are needed who understand the technology, the organization and its purposes, how to manage the ICT staff of the organization, and how to link with the CEO and senior staff. I can't disagree with this position. It is nice to have effective leadership in reengineering government organizations from great CEOs and CIOs.

What is wrong with this position?

But what do you do if you don't have that happy situation? What if the Dilbert conditions apply, and you are faced with pointy-headed managers who don't manage very well? (Dilbert, according to Scott Adams a few days ago, had the following dialog with the trashman:
D: Why does it seem that most of the decisions in my workplace are made by drunken lemurs?

T: Decisions are made by people who have time, not talent.

D: Why are the talented people so busy?

T: They are fixing the problems made by the people who have time.)
A speaker from Sri Lanka mentioned in the meeting that there were 600 CIOs in that small developing country. The odds are overwhelming that not all of them can be good, nor unfortunately are all of the 600 CEOs in their 600 organizations likely to be paragons of virtuous e-leadership.

Assume for the moment that there is an index of the ICT leadership quality of CEOs and one for CIOs. Then, for the sake of this argument, we may assume that CEOs are distributed around some average value, half better than average and half worse than average. So too, we can assume that half the CIOs are better than average, half worse than average.

What does that mean? Assume perfect correlation: that the better the CEO then the better the CIO he is able to recruit. Then half of all organizations would have the sad experience of being led by worse than average CEOs and worse than average CIOs. Alternatively, assume zero correlation. Then three-quarters of organizations would either be led by a worse than average CEO or a worse than average CIO. Are we to write off these organizations because they don't enjoy the quality leadership in their formal authority structure that is desired?

Guerilla leadership.

Leadership can be the result of "legitimate" authority conferred by top positions in the hierarchy of a formal organization. However, some authority is from expertise. (I started out working in research laboratories in which we had a manager and a chief scientist. The manager had formal authority for most purposes, but the chief scientist had the authority of expertise legitimated by a formal position in the organizational structure of the lab.) People look to those around them who best understand the situation and what needs to be done for leadership, Leadership can also be established by initiative, by the person who gets out in front and leads.

What is the likelihood that the person with most talent for intellectual leadership in reengineering for e-government in a large organization is also the person with the formal role of CEO or CIO in that organization? Probably fairly small. Indeed, a couple of the speakers in the seminar suggested that a critical role for the formal leaders was to empower those subordinates in the formal organization who had the needed talent, and to reward them when they exercised that needed intellectual leadership. Anyway, we all know that it is the younger people among us who most often identify with the new technologies and with new ways of doing things, while formal leadership roles in large organizations most often go to older folk with experience and the authority attributed to age.

My words are for those who have the needed talent in greatest abundance, but who do not enjoy formal authority nor the luxury of good leadership from above. First, form a coalition with like minded, comparably talented members of your organization. Then form a "gorilla movement" within the organization to educate and inform the others in your organization of the potential benefits of e-government, and processes needed to successfully reengineer the organization in order to achieve those benefits and avoid the potential pitfalls. Remember, the formal organization is just a cultural construct. It is not a reality like a tree or a rock. Some of your most valuable allies will be found outside the nominal boundaries of your formal organization -- in academia, industry, civil society, and other government agencies. Bring them in as consultants, advisers, speakers and guest experts.

Paradigm shifts

I remember when personal computers were called word processors, and had very limited software. In my government agency at the time there was a formal policy that only secretaries could have these simple personal computers, and professional staff could not use them. I recall later when in 1992 I organized a seminar in my agency on inter-networking, and people wondered what it was and why a government agency might be interested in so esoteric a concept. I have lived through the paradigm shifts that lead to a personal computer for every staff member, networked to the Internet, with universal use of the world wide web in large organization in most of the world.

Invariably, in my experience, the intellectual leadership in the early stages of these paradigm shifts within government agencies came from mid-level staff within the agencies or from outside advisers and consultants. During yesterday's seminar, someone mentioned Chandrababu Naidu, who while Chief Minister in Andhra Pradesh (India) provided the leadership to transform his government through the use of information technology. Others have told me of his combined intellectual leadership, formal leadership, and initiative, and I am really impressed. But he is the extreme high-end tail of the CEO e-government leadership distribution. Do not wait for a Naidu to appear to lead when the next IT paradigm shift approaches. The chances are 1000 to one he will not appear in your organization.

John Maynard Keynes said, "practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." Isaac Newton said, "if I have seen further....it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." I suspect that even Dr. Naidu would acknowledge that his success in Andhra Pradish owed much to the intellectual leadership of people who convinced him that e-government was a right step for the future of Andhra Pradesh, and that the line of influence traces back to some (probably now defunct) e-government theorist.

A question from the audience

In the seminar a member of the audience noted that it is well established that most IT project fail. On the other hand, governments almost everywhere are far more computerized and networked than they were a couple of decades ago. That is an apparent contradiction. He asked how that conundrum could be resolved.

Perhaps part of the answer is that much progress occurred virally. Set up the right climate, reward innovation, permit experimentation recognizing that most experiments will fail, and a thousand flowers will bloom.

(Another part of the answer is that the process of creating a technological system like that of e-government is not adequately described in terms of projects, and that there are externalities from projects which do not meet their nominal objectives which contribute significantly to the development of the overall system supporting e-government.)

There is of course a suitable place for the planning of major initiatives. Interoperability of systems is important, and will generally not be achieved without leadership from the top and coordination among organizational units and different organizations. Economies of scale are available, sometimes large, and again require collective action to achieve that scale.

However, one of the paradigm shifts I remember was when the networked personal computers came in over the resistance of the managers of central mainframe computer departments in large organizations. Centralization can be the bureaucratic enemy of viral progress, The trick is to manage a process in which centralization and planning as well as decentralization and individual initiative are each allowed to play their appropriate roles.

Superstition versus expert knowledge

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, "Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets," makes the point that with thousands of people in leadership roles, some of them will by chance be more successful than others. Those riding the advancing wave of the Information Revolution, like those riding the advancing wave of a bull stock market, are likely to be successful on the average. People being people, the successful will seek retroactively to understand the reasons for their success. Indeed, people being people, they and we will tend to attribute success to superior performance. Taleb suggests that success is often due to the luck of being at the positive end of a random distribution. His experience in the stock market indicates that over the long run, more cautious investors who realize that things can go wrong may outperform those who shine in the short run with aggressive tactics. He knows that attribution of wisdom to the traders who shone brightest during the bull market may be a false attribution. He suspects, and I suspect, that attributing unusual wisdom to those who ride to success on other favorable circumstances is also often a mistake.

We know that correlation is not causality. Superstitious beliefs occur when we observe correlation and assume causality. Indeed, most cultures for most of history seem to have been marked by superstitious beliefs about the nature of the world. CEOs and CIOs who have presided over successful e-government innovation programs seem to me likely to form superstitious beliefs about "what they did that achieved those successes". Listen to them because they like to be listened to. They may be right about the reasons for their success. But.....

On the other hand, there are organizational scientists who conduct systematic observations of large organizations guided by theory. Theirs is a descriptive science, but a science nonetheless. They too may be wrong in their conclusions, their paradigms for understanding leadership may change, but theirs is a form of knowledge that provides an important counterpoint to that of the practitioner.

Final words

Ultimately, let me say that I too believe leadership from CEOs and CIOs is important. I suggest that the Information Revolution has been progressing long enough that strong leaders have emerged and have learned their business from theory and experience. Finding these guys and gals, and giving them the chance to make our organizations better through e-government innovations is a very good idea. Indeed, training an expanded cadre of people with the multiple talents for these roles is also a very good idea.

But I also suggest that leadership is easy when things are going well. A well endowed organization, serving a knowledgeable clientele, in a conducive socio-economic environment (with good ICT providers, access to good external advice, and local examples of good practice, forming a strong cluster favoring innovation), utilizing a rapidly developing technology in proven ways is easy to lead.

It is harder to provide the intellectual leadership when things are going badly, when the formally designated authorities in the organization don't understand what needs to be done, when the clientele are resistant, when the organization is impoverished, and when the socio-economic environment is not conducive to success. Those of us who work in development assistance are not willing to write off all the organizations nor all the countries that suffer from these problems.

We need intellectual leaders to step forward and make e-government work better everywhere, even where such leadership is not easy. If those intellectual leaders happen also to have formal authority of CEOs and CIOs, so much the better. But in so many cases, we must substitute intellectual authority and initiative for formal authority.

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