The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the need for modern, agile IT systems as both the public and private sectors grapple with a suddenly remote workforce. Cloud platforms are the backbone of modern IT infrastructure, providing scalability, speed, and remote access, and are secure without the expense of physical infrastructure. Yet less than 10 per cent of federal departments have transferred some of their operations to a cloud platform. Part of this is because the pandemic diverted focus, but it is also due to fear of the unknown and uncertainty over security benefits and procurement rules.
Had the pandemic struck five years earlier, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) would have been crippled by its lagging IT infrastructure. Instead, CMHC’s operations continued without missing a step – even supporting the government’s pandemic response by rolling out critical economic support with record speed, such as the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance for small businesses and the Insured Mortgage Purchase Program to support the financial system.
CMHC’s partnership approach to transforming its IT infrastructure can serve as a model for other federal departments. CMHC and Accenture, a global professional services company, came together five years ago to move CMHC’s outdated and siloed systems to a robust digital service platform.
Back in 2016, CMHC relied on close to 1,000 separate software applications, many of which were customized and hard to maintain. From operations and insurance underwriting to applications for program funding and accounting, every structure had its own siloed system.
Technology was a source of frustration. Twenty-three per cent of CMHC employees rated it their number one barrier, and one in six employees spent their time trying to find data.
Today, those systems have been replaced with enterprise platforms that have automated manual tasks, sped up processing times and offer real-time data to support better decision-making. This endeavour was no small feat. Finding the right partner and doing a thorough analysis of the scope of the challenge took over a year.
Together as CMHC’s deputy chief information officer and Accenture’s federal government practice lead, we helped execute a project that took place over several years and involved hundreds of employees from both organizations. Ultimately, we found that how we implemented the technology was just as important as the technologies we invested in. Sometimes it was even more important.
Here are five key lessons learned that we believe can help other departments successfully approach digital innovation:
1. Leadership buy-in is crucial
The journey for the project – called CMHC in Motion – began under CMHC’s president and leadership team with the goal of becoming a more agile, focused and efficient company with a culture of accountability.
CMHC modernized its organizational structure and focused on communication and training to manage risk, change and execution and to encourage innovation. Fixing technology was the next step.
The leadership team ensured the building blocks were in place for technology and business transformation. Program funding and resources were made available to drive this three-year transformation and its evolution for years to come.
The CIO role was elevated. Now the CIO sits on CMHC’s executive committee and is positioned to influence decisions that affect all parts of the company. Digital and technological thinking need to be able to influence business strategy rather than being made to fit into strategy that is already set. The two need to evolve hand-in-hand.
2. Innovative solutions require innovative approaches
It was clear from the start that the traditional procurement route of a complicated and time-consuming request-for-proposal process would be an obstacle for the project. Inviting potential partners to analyze the scale of the problem was critical to finding not only the right partner but also the right solutions. For three months, two potential partners were given access to CMHC’s infrastructure and systems to fully assess the scale of the situation they would face. More importantly, it allowed CMHC to leverage the experience of external experts in defining the solution. Incorporating this into the proposal process allowed for a broader, more robust and feasible path forward.
When CMHC and Accenture came together there was already an understanding of the challenges and potential solutions, and the project team was able to move straight to planning implementation.
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3. A true partnership and governance structure is vital
From day one, CMHC wanted a partner. The vision was an arrangement where both parties shared in the benefits and risks and would collaborate on challenges. Given the complexity and timelines of the project, it was impossible to predict where the work would lead, what outcomes and technologies would be needed or even be available. A risk-sharing fund positioned both parties to carefully consider potential project variances and cost overruns, and both parties came together to solve emerging needs and to consider any potential changes to the scope of work.
Agreeing up front to share in the financial risk is not the norm for public sector transformation projects, but it eliminated years of delay as we avoided time-consuming project scoping, trying to describe the perfect solution. It meant that CMHC was not dictating a solution, but rather defining the problem and getting fresh outside perspectives on how to address it through a cohesive joint team.
Managing outsourcing relationships isn’t easy, so CMHC created a partner relationship management team. Three levels of governance are used at CMHC. It starts at the highest level, with the executive team, then flows to the management and operational governance structures. On a bi-weekly basis CMHC and Accenture Canada’s CEOs met to discuss program performance, relationship status and planning. Five years after the contract was signed, these meetings still take place.
4. Commit to an uncharted path
A multi-year transformation will not follow a straight path. Innovative, agile organizations need to be open to imperfection and experimentation. Innovation requires an acceptance that not all ideas work, and that getting out of planning mode and into testing mode happens so we can learn, adapt and move forward. Progress over perfection and timeliness was important, and we made risk-based decisions to move quickly.
For CMHC, technology was also used to help drive a change in culture around risk-taking, speed and being ok with failure. For CMHC and Accenture, there was an understanding that immediate answers would not always be available, especially with rapid advances in technology. This enabled the delivery team to take risks and push forward at a quicker pace, knowing that it was ok to fail fast to avoid the lengthy detours of searching for the “perfect” solution.
Along the journey, unforeseen events – like the introduction of the National Housing Strategy in 2017 and the COVID-19 pandemic – required significant changes to plans and priorities. CMHC was able to adapt, demonstrating that with the right culture and committed senior leadership, organizations can become resilient and better equipped to respond to unexpected changes in their business environment.
5. Create a feedback loop to guide the pace of change
Engaged and enabled employees can make or break transformative IT projects. Change management is often the first thing to cut when an organization is trying to save its resources, yet it is one of the areas we found to be critical. Continuous dialogue and check-ins through surveys and consultations ensured employees believed in the transformation and had the skills and confidence to adopt transformed business approaches. It is essential to communicate early and often to employees in a transparent and simple way.
To get early buy-in from employees and to show our commitment to making this transformation work, the first project we tackled was the one with the biggest positive impact for our employees – moving off Lotus Notes email to Outlook and Skype. The success of this implementation was instrumental in gaining buy-in from employees and made the transformation real for them.
We were cognizant of the massive cultural shift we were asking employees to make. Their entire technological world was being altered, from a new email platform and filing systems, to a client relationship management system, invoicing and how they manage client requests. We developed a “heat map” to identify which areas of CMHC were undergoing the most change. With the map and employee feedback, we were able to adjust our approach and ease up where the pace of change was too intense. We worked alongside senior management and human resources to continuously evaluate progress and identify areas that needed more training or support.
We find ourselves at an exciting time, where rapid innovation in technology has the potential to drastically change the way we develop and deliver public programs and policy. Over the past few years, technology companies have improved the ease of use, security, scale and interoperability of their offerings. The flexibility and cost-effectiveness of cloud services are undeniable.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for agility in our IT infrastructure. As Canadians look to all levels of government to lead them through these unprecedented times, they have seen the tangible results of government in action to keep them safe, provide them with financial support and navigate the road to economic recovery. Now is the time to build a better, more resilient IT environment for our public sector, one that will allow us to weather storms and continue to provide Canadians with world-class government services.