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By Lauraine Sayers  |  Posted 05-05-2005 Print Email
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Jane's Brain Treadwell was hired by Centrelink CEO, Sue Vardon. The pair had previously worked at the Department of Correctional Services, South Australia, and Vardon is blunt in saying that she wasn't looking for a technical expert. "I had plenty of them—IT people with distinction who could make the mainframe dance. I was looking for a good strategic thinker."

Treadwell joined the public sector ranks early in her career and never looked back. She did stints with various Australian healthcare agencies. And at the Department of Correctional Services, Treadwell worked with Vardon to squeeze 30 percent of the costs from the overcrowded Australian prison system.

"The thing I like about Jane is her brain," Vardon says. "She's intelligent and she thinks futuristically. She projects every concept about the present into the future, which allows her to make the right choices about present solutions."

At Centrelink, Treadwell got a handle on things by reading change-management books by authors such as Tom Peters and Marianne Broadbent, and by traveling extensively to other government sites and forums throughout Europe, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.

But her educational honeymoon didn't last long. There was pressure to deliver from the very beginning. To start with, she encountered an underlying resentment against IT—it was perceived to be running the business—and a commonly held cynicism about the amount of money that went into the IT "black hole." Old-timers viewed IT as something you thought about later, and they tended to see the CIO role in a technical rather than strategic light. It was in the face of this that Treadwell had to persuade the Department of Finance that funding the massive $312 million up-front costs of the new e-business infrastructure was a worthwhile investment.

Worse still, nothing in Australia's political hotbed of Canberra escapes public comment or criticism, deserved or otherwise. In fact, a quick search on the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSu) site about Centrelink still yields withering criticism of Treadwell's forceful views.

Treadwell, as always, is unfazed. She has a three-pronged strategy for handling criticism. "If it's about the organization, we try to work out whether it's constructive and if so, how to address it. If it's written up in the newspaper, then I try to work out how many people are going to read it. And if it's personal, then I keep getting up in the morning and keep getting on with the job. I'll do a few extra kicks in body combat."

"In an organization this big, you don't stretch the bounds of possibility without making mistakes," she says. "We've always felt a lot of scrutiny, but we've also had the desire to justify the experiment."

Centrelink's e-business transformation began simply in 1997 with a pilot program wherein customers used telephone and Internet channels for self-service. Prior to this, a customer was required to call, write to, or actually visit a Centrelink office , and then wait for a result. But achieving even this elementary level of customer self-service support required innovative solutions. Centrelink found that off-the-shelf middleware would not suit its purposes, nor would a modified commercial product. The result was a project to create customized middleware that is known as the Centrelink Online Framework (COLF).

Centrelink's first self-service product, called Payment Details, required translating more than 500 pieces of code from multiple data dictionary tables in the legacy system. It then needed to be turned into meaningful "conversation" accessible through telephone-based voice recognition software, and later, via Web pages. This meant understanding how staff interacted with customers so that the feel of Payment Details would be the same, regardless of the channel. Subsequent products have faced similar challenges, both in technology and in translating the existing business policy and process into e-business. The voice recognition software used to achieve this has won several international awards.

Centrelink's e-business is now fully operational and expanding regularly. It allows clients to find information easily and update their details as their situations change. Centrelink receives and processes client information much more quickly than before, and customers, who often feel a stigma attached to contacting a welfare agency, maintain their anonymity.

In the majority of cases, the target take-up rate for each Centrelink service has exceeded expectations, depending on the service. For example, in the case of the Report Employment Income service, the target take-up rate exceeded expectations by between 50 to 500 percent. Treadwell says the exponential take-up rate didn't surprise her, but it overwhelmed parts of the organization that didn't anticipate it.

To achieve all of this, Treadwell injected IT, which had long been seen as a separate entity, into upper management. Through her efforts, IT disappeared as a distinct concept and became part of the business transformation domain. "We started working on project management and portfolio management. I closed down the IT project office and said there was no such thing as IT projects—they are all business projects." And that is how Treadwell became Deputy CEO of Business Transformation, as well as CIO.

She then went several steps further. To prepare the entire organization for the e-business transformation, Treadwell made use of "a radical new group" called the Guiding Coalition, made up of all of Centrelink's 60 executives, including area managers, team leaders, and customer segment team leaders. Every six to eight weeks, Treadwell and her team presented to the Guiding Coalition on potential service opportunities created by IT. Until recently, the group continued to meet regularly, for a day and a half to two days, every six weeks.

Although it's difficult to understand how the dynamics of a team of 60 people might operate, Treadwell is adamant that it works very effectively. She says the meetings, chaired by the CEO and four deputy CEOs, are structured, but involving and engaging.

Another unusual governance structure Treadwell established involves a talent bank. Staff in her business transformation domain no longer own positions. Instead, they are assigned to roles and capabilities. The objective is to prevent people from being stuck in the same position forever. They are assigned to a service role or a project, and at the end of that project, they become available for reassignment.



 

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