The Making of Two Technowizards

Human resources and training. Hard to think of two government disciplines further removed from the bright screens and big changes of the information technology revolution. But if managers from such humble beginnings as these can become techno-wizards, so can you.

Steve Kennedy, Social Security Administration training director, absorbed enough techno-smarts from around home and the office to come up with a whiz-bang solution to an expensive problem. Don Heffernan, who runs GSA's wide-area computer network as assistant CIO, got his first taste of technology using a computerized personnel system in the early 1980s in GSA's employment and labor relations office.

Kennedy was choking on the estimated $7 million price tag for training SSA staffers in just a portion of the rule changes brought by a redesign of SSA's disability program. At home at night, Kennedy kept seeing a television commercial showing a woman teaching French via video to a group of students in another location. "I thought, 'Why can't we do that?'" Kennedy made time to go to a conference on video training, where he gathered business cards, asked questions and set up visits to companies using the technology. In addition, Kennedy works in an agency where reengineering using technology has become a way of life. "They've been pushing a lot of reengineering," he says. "The disability system redesign followed the [Michael] Hammer method. Program managers would have benchmarking and go to conferences. They had no idea how the architecture was to be structured, but they would see AT&T or American Express doing something and say, 'Hey, they have cases on line, why can't we?'"

Following what has become common practice at SSA, Kennedy read more about teletraining, looked at how private companies were using it, and got a vendor to come up with a cost-benefit analysis demonstrating tremendous potential savings. "We made a business case for it here. We begged, borrowed and stole equipment to come up with a system to demonstrate it for the executive staff." The top people were sold on the idea and coughed up funding for a satellite-based interactive distance learning system with a broadcast facility at the Baltimore headquarters and communications facilities at 200 SSA sites.

Surfing a Techno-Wave

Heffernan enjoyed using the automated personnel management system so much he began writing programs for it. He toyed with the idea of switching fields so he could work with the new technology, but put aside the notion as he climbed the ladder, eventually becoming acting personnel director in 1990. Five years into the personnel chief's job, Heffernan bought his daughter a personal computer and began playing with it himself. He discovered the Internet, and later, the World Wide Web. A self-described wind surfing fanatic, Heffernan used his PC to communicate with surfers worldwide. Heffernan's love affair with the computer grew in concert with the interest of GSA officials in making better use of information technology. Eventually, Associate Administrator for Administration Elaine Johnson created a job accommodating all Heffernan's skills: head of a new office of labor relations and information technology.

Heffernan pulled together a strategic plan for using IT in administrative systems. He began rubbing shoulders with GSA's information resources shop, then run by Joe Thompson, now GSA's CIO. When Thompson was named CIO, he followed private firms' strategy for advice building a staff. They brought in business managers interested in technology, not typical IT managers. "Looking around, he spotted me," Heffernan recalls. "I was a business manager, I had good relations with other managers, I had an ability to work with people, I was a customer [of the IT shop] and I appeared interested."

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