With A Half-Billion Dollar IT Budget, She May Be The Best U.S. Gov CIO

Casey Coleman, the Chief Information Officer for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) knows a thing or two about the challenges that private-sector businesses face today - managing technology mega-trends - cloud computing, mobile and consumer tech, social networking, and big data - while running a customer focused business, and keeping a keen eye on the bottom line - scaled to the super-size of a federal agency. I was incredibly impressed by GSA's current innovative practices, their forward thinking vision, and the maximization of ROI that Coleman and her team have delivered.

The GSA is an agency of 17,000 users that provides centralized procurement for the entire federal government, offering products, services and facilities that federal agencies need to serve the public. Much like a private-sector business, the GSA needs to offer value to their customers, the federal agencies, so they will want to work with them. As CIO, Coleman leads her IT team of over 500 employees in accelerating the missions of the agencies she serves, with an annual IT budget of half a billion dollars.

Coleman's background of working for several technology startups, in consulting, sales and management roles was a natural fit for this job. In fact, my research shows that if the GSA were a public company they would be in the Fortune 250. Coleman has received numerous awards for her many accomplishments in driving strategy and innovation and for using technology to better the agencies she serves. She is also a big champion for the use of social media to help improve federal government services and she is #11 on my list of the "Top 50 CIOs on Twitter".

Speaking with Coleman allowed me to see a very different view of the federal government. As she best puts is: "This is not your granddad's federal government; this is a 21st century government."

Here are 8 CIO lessons on managing a large scale IT organization, while staying nimble and customer focused:

Go First: As a provider of business and technical services to agencies within the federal government, the GSA wants to try to be first with the implementation of leading-edge technologies so they can help other agencies along that same journey. Coleman has driven an innovation agenda, leading GSA in becoming the first agency to move to a cloud-based email and collaboration platform which provides significant cost savings and improvements to security, mobility and performance. "As a more business-oriented agency and as an agency that tries to be knowledgeable about technology trends so we can partner more effectively with our customers, it's in our best interest to really be effective users and champions of these new trends," said Coleman.

Coleman shared a great success story where they went first in the area or teleworking, a government-wide initiative. The GSA renovated and changed the way their building works in order to foster an open and collaborative work space. Say goodbye to the corner office and mahogany desk for this CIO. With no fixed offices and just mobile furniture, employees book spaces based on the type of work they are doing for the day. This change enabled the GSA to save over $24 million dollars annually on rent. And for the first time ever, all employees can be in one space, allowing them to be together when they need to be, or to work from a different space in the building when they need to. After pursuing a telework strategy for 5 years, the GSA went from 20% of their employees teleworking to over 65%.

Align to Support IT Mega Trends: Coleman tells us that, in general, federal agencies are decentralized in their approach to IT. The GSA however, has moved to a unified team to align efforts and has re-doubled their focus on user experience and on agile development. As a major Cloud advocate, Coleman has seen a 90% TCO reduction in some cases by moving from legacy to cloud platforms. This unified model allows the GSA to deliver service more economically and has allowed them to do more with their current resources. Although some mega trends can be fairly disruptive,

Coleman hits on a key point: "People come to work to make a difference and to have an opportunity to contribute and if we can give them tools to streamline their work and be more productive and more engaged, then I feel we have a compelling business case to integrate these tools." Of course in such a large agency there are challenges with driving the cloud, social, mobile and data agenda and user adoption can be slow. To combat the challenges of constant change typical of a Cloud environment, the GSA created "IT Insider". IT Insider was designed to meet people where they are when they have a need, and is oriented to the way they think and talk and work, by offering a blog, newsletter, knowledgebase and real-time chat enabling employees to engage with technical staff and get immediate answers to their questions.

Technology for Business Sake (Not Technology Sake): Coleman tells us, "It's never about IT for IT sake; it's about the business objectives of the organization and tying the business case for the technology investment into the achievement of those objectives." She gives us an example taken from one of the GSA's big program areas where they serve as the landlord for the federal government, providing office and other workspace services for the federal government.

In order to manage all the federal government properties, the GSA has individuals who go out and review the properties and would take notes manually then come back and key it all in and create work orders. They found that moving to a tablet not only saved time and reduced errors but made the work more productive, interesting and relevant and allowed employees to focus more on interacting with customers and tenants. It was a win-win where the technology improved the satisfaction of the customer and the employee.

Stay Ahead of Technology: With the "Consumerization of IT" in full swing, we are seeing a lot of analyst organizations talking about a shift in technology budget from the IT department to other areas outside of IT, such as the CMO and even to a new Chief Digital Officer (CDO) position. I was curious to hear Coleman's take on it. While Coleman loves to see more technically savvy colleagues, she points to a recent WSJ article that makes the case against the need for a Chief Digital Officer and she personally feels that "it is just one more position without a clear cut lane to run in".

However she tells us that the pressure is on to remain relevant and that staying ahead of the trend of offices looking for technology solutions is a challenge that has pushed them to be a lot more agile and caused them to reduce development time for new capabilities significantly. Coleman says, "If you can deliver quality services and you can do it rapidly and you can bring understanding of the work you are doing to the mission of the team you are supporting, I think the partnership remains solid."

Social Collaboration: The GSA is a big supporter of social media both within the agency and externally, and was one of first agencies to create a social media policy about 5 years ago. The social media policy embraces and encourages the use of social media for official programs and gives guidelines for employees on using tools in an appropriate personal manner. As an agency, the GSA allows all the various social media tools to be used and they use all of them to share the services they provide to the public. Coleman herself has been active on Twitter for a long time and blogs regularly.

Focus on User Experience: For CIOs to be successful today, we hear over and over again that they need to have communication skills and co-create value by partnering with the business. What is Coleman's take on the role of the CIO today? She tells us, "I think of the CIO today as being a choreographer or a conductor of an orchestra, bringing various services together and choreographing the delivery of those services but not necessarily owning the hardware or the licenses, really more overseeing the delivery of the capability in partnership with the people who are needing to consume that capability for their own mission."

Deliver Routine Services in an Excellent Fashion: As an innovative supplier of services and a full partner with the business, Coleman offers her expert advice on how CIOs can remain relevant and not be devalued as a provider of infrastructure services: "Don't underestimate the importance of doing the routine services delivered in an excellent fashion. You build credibility when the network is up and apps are routinely accessible and that gives you a platform to do more. It is essential to build relationships, personal trust and credibility within the business."

When the GSA consolidated infrastructure support services about 5-6 years ago - from about 39 contracts to a single, consolidated program - the benefits were many but there was also a loss of some personal control at the local level. In order to continue to remain an essential business partner to their customers, Coleman's team visited with each GSA office and region over the course of 12 months to demonstrate their support and collaboration during the consolidation. In taking the time to do this, and allowing themselves to become transparent, they built a solid foundation of trust that has endured long past the consolidation and has fueled the success of many other initiatives since.

Partner with Small Businesses: The federal government has a heavy reliance on the small business community and Coleman tells us that the GSA has a score card with which they are monitored on their ability to work with the small business community. Personally, she has found small businesses to be very effective. To help foster this interaction there is a website, Challenge.gov, where the federal government can post problems and the public can propose solutions. The GSA is also doing their part to help companies enter the federal marketplace with the GSA schedule, a way for companies to pre-negotiate the terms for doing business with the federal government in an effort to speed up the time to solution.

As we ended our conversation, Coleman left us with her parting words of advice: "Be willing to take a chance to make a change and to do something you haven't done before. Avoid falling into routine practices, stay fluid and be open to change." Successful CIOs know, there is no safety in the status quo.

You can watch the full interview with Casey Coleman here. I am certain that after the video, you would agree that Casey Coleman is a role model CIO and a real innovative pioneer. Please join me and Michael Krigsman every Friday at 4PM as we host CXOTalk - connecting with thought leaders and innovative executives who are pushing the boundaries within their companies and their fields.