Transforming archaic and siloed data and communications systems into coherent, enterprise-wide information services has always been a struggle at the Department of Defence, but a new breed of IT architects is making it happen.
With a billion-dollar IT budget, some 80,000 desktops, 500 global sites, and the third biggest network in Australia behind Telstra and Optus, Defence has a legacy of individual departments doing their own IT without regard to future integration or interoperability.
With minimal grasp of the "business" requirements of IT, only a few years ago the Defence committee, or board, was pitched to notion of hiring more IT architects to rationalize and streamline its business processes.
Acting head of Defence's information systems division John Sheridan said the IT team was able to persuade the Defence committee to sign up to the notion of building an information systems infrastructure to support processes.
"It was naive in 2003 to think we could jump so far ahead of other organizations in this area," Sheridan said. "We had people keeping the hope alive while we took the discipline of architecture forward. Not everyone was convinced of the value IT architecture would provide."
Early work generated an understanding of what wasn't working, according to Sheridan, who said because Defence is a big organization "with enough creativity you can fund anything over a short period of time".
"We were looking at a federated approach and had to look at what people did and what they owned," he said. "We are talking about things owned by the business, not IT. We didn't think about processes at that stage but it came clear ownership was with the business."
"We also appreciated it was important to start at the top and we had to persuade people that architectures are a good idea."
Sheridan's vision was aided by a culture of long-term planning within Defence, which is known to "keep aeroplanes for 50 years, ships for 40, and some people for 30".
"When we started architecture projects we insisted people from the business team were involved full-time in the project team," he said. "So this was something they were doing to themselves and not being done to them."
The team started at a number of levels and the key project was to develop a financial systems architecture, which had three-quarters of the staff devoted to it. The project took about 12 full-time equivalent staff-years over 10 months and was presented to the CFO. During the project the team mapped some 120 processes and then discovered it had another 900 to map.
"If you are going to change an organization's IT you have to have credibility," he said, adding his budget to develop projects is now about $100 million. "If you can't deliver a credible IT system then don't try and change the business."
"The function of an IT architect is no different to a building architect - the architect meets with the owner and translates the ideas to the builders. It's the Rosetta Stone of IT that the architect will provide for the organization. It's the ability to talk to business and IT."
Defence now has 70 full-time architects and Sheridan believes the role is something that people can do with little application as "anyone can step up to the plate".
With IT architecture now accepted by the Defence organization, one of the first large projects was the development of a SOE for desktops which has halved the number of applications in use, and the upgrade of its SAP system which is "now running well".
Sheridan described Defence's transformation as "the architectural challenge of a generation" that has to happen and Defence is "no better or worse" than any other large enterprise.
"The CIO of Defence is now at the same level as other business unit leaders," he said. "It's about business processes and the business owning what they are doing."
Former Australian Taxation Office second commissioner Greg Farr began at Defence this month as the new CIO. Sheridan said Farr understands government and IT, and he supports and understands IT architecture generally.
Do you have any questions or comments about this story? Please e-mail Rodney Gedda at email@example.com.