Culture Is an Integral Part of IT Modernization Success

Mindset and process shifts are needed spanning acquisition to the workforce

Lakshmi Ashok

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the many significant technological challenges our government faces, renewing calls to rapidly enhance IT modernization programs. Investments in these programs are critical for both our near-term crisis and our long-term prospects. In many cases, they are long overdue.

But as government agencies look to accelerate their IT modernization efforts — and contractors look to support those projects — it’s important to remember that people are the critical element determining whether technology upgrades succeed. Attempting to modernize without a comprehensive approach that accounts for an agency’s culture, engages its workforce, and addresses critical business practices can actually create new or additional challenges that limit effectiveness and negatively affect mission outcomes.

This process begins with an understanding of how to acquire technology. Government procurement rules and regulations largely pre-date the technologies developed over the past decade. This puts acquisition officials in a tough spot, as they look to deliver innovation to their agencies. After all, no one wants to be the next poster child for wasteful spending or procurement violations.

Risk aversion in the acquisition community is holding back government innovation. It’s essential that we change that culture and provide the acquisition community with the tools, processes, and incentives to meet the challenges of today and the future.

While the administration has taken several positive steps in addressing these challenges, including making friction-less acquisition a cross-agency priority goal, much more still must be done. We need a heightened focus on outcome-based procurements and a shift in mindset from labor-based to outcome-based acquisitions.

The contracting community also has an important role to play in helping to streamline acquisition processes. Complaining about burdensome or outdated regulations does not suffice. We have a responsibility to provide clear, transparent practices that empower acquisition officials to understand exactly what they’re purchasing. That means developing easily understood tracking mechanisms that define the value of enhanced technology for agencies and taxpayers, as well as training in alternate contracting mechanisms that they can use.


If employees do not feel comfortable operating in a new system or a new environment – or worse, if they actively oppose it – we will never see the full benefits of modernization.

Acquisition is only one part of this effort. Without buy-in from program management or the rank-and-file workforce, no new technology — no matter how exciting or innovative — can be fully effective in serving the mission. Building that trust requires a robust framework of operations and a thoughtful approach to organizational change management.

The best managers in government always put success of the mission above everything else. But as with the acquisition community, this well-intended commitment can often lead to overreliance on the familiar and risk-aversion that actually hold an agency back.

Industry must demonstrate that our innovations can safely and securely manage critical data — especially classified information — to assure that we are never putting national missions at risk. Government managers should also expect that any IT vendor has a proven understanding of unique agency missions built into its solutions. Because agencies operate in a different environment than commercial companies — with different rules, practices, goals, security and compliance needs, and expectations — simply taking an off-the-shelf commercial product and pushing it into a government system is a recipe for failure.


RELATED: Digital transformation is not just about technology


Of course, the most important element in the success of any IT modernization effort is the workforce that uses the technology on a daily basis. If employees do not feel comfortable operating in a new system or a new environment — or worse, if they actively oppose it — we will never see the full benefits of modernization.

Supporting the workforce begins with an understanding that new IT systems are not designed to replace employees but to help them do their jobs better by reducing repetitive tasks and preventing frustrating system outages. We have to communicate clearly and be transparent to employees about the impact of these changes and the extensive positive outcomes that support their ability to meet the mission. Workers must also be empowered with the skills to maximize any new technology. That means having a plan to engage and train employees for the tools they’ve been given.

We’re at a critical moment in our country, and the need to upgrade our government's IT is clear. We should absolutely take this opportunity to address gaps and invest in our future. By keeping in mind the important cultural components of IT modernization and the responsibilities both government and industry have in shaping this effort, we can maximize our impact and ensure what we all value most: success on our national missions.

Posted by: Lakshmi Ashok

VP, Digital Transformation

Lakshmi Ashok is vice president of digital transformation at SAIC. In this role, she spearheads strategy and implementation of digital transformation for the federal government and leads the company’s four digital practice areas: software, platforms, cyber, and data analytics. Under her direction, the digital practices are empowered to develop innovative products for digital transformation, provide consultancy, deliver disruptive technology, and support all-around business capture. Ashok is a thought leader advocating enhanced customer missions through innovative technology and is an evangelist for digital transformation.

Ashok joined SAIC in 2020 with the acquisition of Unisys Federal. At Unisys Federal, she most recently served as vice president of application services, where she led solution development for transformational application services, managed cloud services, as well as agile development and data analytics services for the federal government. She guided a fast-paced delivery team, led business capture solutioning for application services, and managed the product portfolio, enterprise services, and operations for federal application services. She previously served as vice president for homeland security and critical infrastructure, driving the innovation, optimization, and support of Department of Homeland Security mission-critical systems.

Prior to joining Unisys Federal, Ashok held multiple positions at CSRA and CSC, including director of consulting services, director of digital platforms, director of cloud services, and solutions architect. Throughout her career, she has architected, implemented, and delivered enterprise-scale IT services and capabilities to multiple federal clients and has led corporate-wide strategies in the area of next-generation IT services.

Ashok earned a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering from the University of Mysore and a master’s degree in aeronautical systems engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology. She holds several certifications in the cloud and technology fields.



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