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The dynamics of public sector transformation - a chat with the Infor team

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed April 14, 2017
Public sector transformation is a heck of a topic - especially in today's political hot bed. After their Federal Forum event in D.C. last week, the Infor team shared their views in this exclusive on driving change - and why the public sector is drawn to cloud adoption. We also hit on the barriers public sector "change agents" encounter.

Last week's Infor Federal Forum in D.C. raised potent issues in public sector recruitment and talent. As speakers weighed in, a bigger question loomed: is the public sector ready for digital transformation? And can we get anything done amidst political divisions and frequently changing budgets/mandates?

After the event, I kicked these issues around with Kevin Curry, Senior Vice President, Infor Public Sector, Wayne Bobby, VP Infor Federal, and Kurt Steward, VP Infor Public Sector. Of course, they also had plenty to say about Infor's ability to help public sector organizations with this transformation. But before we go there, here's what they had to say on digital in the public sector - down to the local level.

Why does the Federal Forum event resonate?

This was Infor's second Federal Forum and they plan to do more. From the talks I had with attendees, the content resonated. But why? Curry thinks it's because so many public sector firms find themselves in the same predicaments:

A lot of their back office systems were acquired Y2K. Think about that - we're in 2017. Those systems are 17+ years old now. The world has changed; it doesn't stand still. There's also the advent of this thing called cloud. You have an aging workforce, so you really are at this inflection point, if you will, where governments are having to make decisions about what they're going to do going forward for their next generation of systems.

You've also got millennials that are coming into the workforce, who are used to applications that look like what's on their devices, their iPhones or tablets - not the older performance based stuff that was on the market for years and years.

Bobby says attendees are surprised to learn that public sector software can be just as cloudy/modern as private sector:

Within government, just generally speaking, I feel that folks are expecting now to be able to operate with the technology the business community and others have operated with. They're always surprised to see that this stuff is available to them - they just have to think differently about how they're operating and how they're doing things.

Curry emphasized this is not just about financial and HCM software:

Beyond just the core financial and capital management-type solutions, if you listen to what's happening right now with the government around things like aging infrastructure and investment, that's going to start with the feds and it's going to roll its way downhill, to state departments of transport and public works.

But: these issues must be addressed in a new/modern way. The patience for building custom solutions that are hard to maintain is wearing thin. Bobby thinks some of Infor's competitors are out of step:

You're looking at some massive, massive overhaul-type projects, from asset management to supply chain projects... With some of our competitors, they've custom-built, cobbled together things over the year. [Organizations are saying], "I'm not doing this any more."

Modern tools are great - culture change is harder

At recent events I've seen cloudy/smart/collaborative solutions that seem so much better than older ERP or BI tools. But that doesn't make the culture change part easier. Here's what I said to the Infor team:

Now that the technology is getting a lot closer to arriving - granted, there's some missing pieces around predictive and AI that are still coming - it really shines the light on the culture issues. I think Jonathan did a good job of pointing that out today, which is: you've got the technology, but you also have to get rid of the bureaucratic processes and address the culture around it, because these tools are about a different way of working, right? You can't use the tools with the old way of working and get good results.

In their responses, the Infor team referenced the stories of Calvin Turner, Director of the National Finance Center, Turner's former boss, CFO Jon Holladay, and guest keynote speaker David Aguilar, former director of Deputy Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (see my prior piece for details on what they said). Bobby picked the story up:

This is what Calvin and Jon spoke to. For Jon, here's a guy who's like 48 years old, a visionary. He saw that he had an organization in New Orleans, which was about 1,500 employees, and it has dropped down to about 1,100 employees. Just relying on the old ways of hiring is not working for him. He needs to make it younger, right? Attract millennials, and hire the right ones - so that they stick around. So these guys turned to Infor to evaluate in a quantitative, scientific way of measuring, who fits into our organization?

Curry thinks change management tools can lessen the challenge, if users are engaged from the beginning:

Charles Phillips (Infor CEO) described that pretty well. He was talking about the change management piece, and things that Infor does with digital disruption, and having those teams be able to come in, get the collaboration going upfront, build the applications, and then go back to the users, right? So you get that buy-in up front, and then on the back end you don't have as many of the change management issues as you would have had otherwise.

Local governments are in the same digital boat

Steward does a lot of work with Infor's local governance clients. Are the issues at the local level the same, or different?

I find it's very similar. What's happening at the federal level is also going to impact local government... I was just at the state budget officer's conference last week, and they were talking about all these issues, the federal funding, the appropriations that are coming up, the challenges with infrastructure, the challenges with Medicaid and healthcare, and social services. How do we deliver all these different services?

Local firms are also looking to tech as a way to deliver better service:

If you start talking about the technology with with local governments, it's very much the same thing. When you get into a room with those folks, they want to be able to deliver services to the end user, whether it's picking up the garbage, or delivering water services - how can we help them to be able to do that more effectively?

Curry thinks local adoption of the cloud has actually been more aggressive, with more "inclusive" solutions that span a suite of products:

The option for Cloud has been a lot faster for local governments than it has been for feds. Pretty much every local RFP we're seeing come out is either cloud or the option for cloud... In any given week, there will be four city or counties coming out to get an RFP to replace their old systems.

My take - change is the only constant

I didn't know what to expect in D.C. at such a volatile time. I thought maybe I'd encounter a room weary from electoral change without funding to push ahead. We did hear some of that - Holladay referred to an untimely hiring freeze after the administrative turnover.

But Holladay seemed unfazed by that. He called for more creative change agents inside the government, and better recruitment of young talent to push those changes forward. We did hear about cost concerns, but the private sector is hardly immune from those.

Infor, of course, sees its vertical SaaS strategy as an ideal fit for these modern needs. That includes their federal health care offerings, as well as a big pitch for Enterprise Asset Management, which Infor considers a market leading solution that can handle any organization's scale.

Not everyone is optimistic about the elected leadership in D.C. But Curry pointed out that an influx of private sector leaders could bring fresh approaches:

You're getting people that are wanting to change the norm within government. We see some of that with this change in administration - there are a lot of people from private industry. It's going to be a bit of a social experiment; we'll see what happens.

To me, even the word "experiment" is optimistic. Given that I trend dystopian, I welcome the jolt of upbeat views. One thing I do know: these open conversations on talent and change are what the public sector needs more of. There's one big missing piece: security, but I'll get to that in a future post.

Updated, 8am PT Saturday April 15 with minor tweaks for readability.

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