Viewpoint: CIO Rick Thomas

The U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center is the headquarters for the Army’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) department. CIO Rick Thomas is responsible for developing and managing systems that support the leisure activities of millions of active and retired servicemen and women and their families. The group offers such services as banking, investment management, human-resources management, legal services and risk insurance, as well as bowling alleys, golf courses and childcare centers. “We’re basically a conglomerate, multifaceted headquarters working within the Department of Defense,” says Thomas.

Thomas found that his organization needed a way to better develop and articulate recommendations for technology initiatives. That meant building a set of processes for creating and managing an enterprise architecture. But in an era of tight budgets and increasing business demands, justifying the time and cost was tough. “So the first issue is, how do you convince the leadership that this is the right thing to do?” he asks. “And once you’ve convinced them, how do you demonstrate the value-added early on so that it doesn’t die before it’s started?”

Thomas recommends picking an initiative that touches a broad range of organizational components while reaping quick returns. His group chose an online education program—”Learning at Full Velocity”—where the division’s training arm, MWR Academy, had already decided they wanted to have custom software built to avoid the cost of flying in trainees. First, Thomas’ architects used a variety of organizational information—internal manuals, policy and procedure documents, MWR’s strategic plan, the group’s Balanced Scorecard, and an existing overall architectural plan for the Army—to construct a loose grid of organizational functions and goals. After existing training processes were analyzed, Thomas’ architects then performed what he calls a “deep dive” into the architectural plans, defining the specific processes and technology that would be required for the e-learning project. Those requirements were then compared with a variety of approaches, including custom and off-the-shelf software.

Thomas reports that the process required extra work by the business constituents to define requirements—work they thought they were already done with. But by placing the initiative in an architectural framework, IT was able to determine that an off-the-shelf application would not only meet the business requirements but also save $125,000 in development and $40,000 in annual maintenance costs—as well as incalculable expense if the wrong application had been chosen and then jettisoned.

The architecture team’s next steps will be to flesh out the broader enterprise architecture as each new initiative appears, a process that will take some time. “The general I work for, I told him it takes five years,” says Thomas. “And when you’re done, you end up with a rectangle that’s completely done, and that’s your architecture.”

Thomas suggests that one of the biggest challenges is change management, which involves keeping track of each time a business process is modified. “You have to capture every change,” he advises. “If you don’t, on day two your data is invalidated.” But it’s not difficult, he says, if you have the right notification procedures in place, and if IT can generate graphic depictions, or views, of business processes to review with business owners. “You send people views they can understand, and ask them whether or not they’re still doing this,” he says.

But he says the real value of enterprise architecture comes in making better technology investment decisions, and by weeding out inefficient business processes that can increase organizational productivity. “To me, that’s where the architecture is really going to pay off for us when we finish.”

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