Build a case for success


Business case tools help agencies adhere to regulations for justifying and tracking IT projects and range from simple case builders and Office of Management and Budget Exhibit 300 submission tools, to business intelligence and portfolio management suites.

Many of these tools integrate with software agencies already may be running, such as enterprise resource planning software. Some are tailored to help agencies comply with measures such as the Federal Information Security Management Act, Government Performance and Results Act and President's Management Agenda.

But often, these tools are only as good as the people who use them. In that spirit, software makers offer this helpful advice:

Understand the reasoning behind each business case. "Software can only take you so far," said Carl DeMaio, Performance Institute president. "If you don't do the business case itself, you can digitize a lousy plan."

Keep it simple. Buy-in inevitably requires getting top executives to understand and support the business case. "I tend to suggest simple programs rather than complex," DeMaio said. "You're always going to have a vendor trying to up-sell you."

Focus on the big picture. "Look for a tool that brings everything together," advises Amy Vaccari, director of portfolio management office services at Metier Ltd.

Start small. "Don't think you need to solve all your agency's problems on day one," said Jonathan Becher, chief executive officer and president of Pilot Software Inc. "Think of it as a rollout over time."

Government programs drive use of performance-based management tools

Government performance initiatives, including such measures as the President's Management Agenda, in recent years have focused on IT both as a means to an end and as a cost center that must be brought under control.

But today, the characterization of IT infrastructure matters less than the need to control its costs.

"IT expenditures at the federal level alone are $65 billion," said Carl DeMaio, president and founder of the Performance Institute, a think tank that promotes performance-based management practices in government. "That is the third-largest program that is run by the federal government."

To better match government performance with IT investments, the Office of Management and Budget in its Circular A-11 issued copious requirements that agencies must meet before getting OMB approval for budget requests. Of late, the parts of Circular A-11 getting the most attention are its Exhibits 300 and 53, which prescribe how agencies shall justify a business case for the funding requests.

"The agencies have had OMB 300 on the brain," said David Hurwitz, chief marketing officer of Niku Corp., which makes portfolio management software. "It's necessary, but not enough, to automate your business case process."

The push for solid business cases meshes neatly with other federal IT initiatives, such as the federal enterprise architecture, which is meant to encourage resource sharing.

"OMB is interested in looking across business lines to see if there's duplication," said Caine O'Brien, vice president of marketing at ProSight Inc., another portfolio management software vendor. "They're looking to classify taxonomically where each of these investments fit."

Other federal mandates, such as the Government Performance and Results Act, seek to ensure that agencies follow up with results.

"The big thing the federal government cares about is integrating budget and performance," said Robert Clay, vice president of marketing at CorVu Corp. "They want to make sure that all of the resources of the agency are aligned with the mission of the agency."

OMB 300 business cases are almost exclusively the province of federal agencies, but some state and local governments are starting to follow the OMB format to build better business cases in their grant requests to federal agencies, especially to the Homeland Security Department.

But state and local governments are far more likely to use business case tools to support their ongoing efforts to justify IT investments and better align them to business needs.

One local government that has begun to transform its business is Sarasota County, Fla. According to county Chief Information Officer Bob Hanson, Sarasota bought Pilot Software Inc.'s PilotWorks to add an easy-to-use, graphical, front end and performance-management capabilities to GovMax, a budgeting program it had developed in-house. Hanson said the combination has let the county enhance interdepartmental collaboration and avoid wasteful duplication.

"Now we tend to look at tools and people and equipment without regard to the department they're in," Hanson said.

The hybrid tool, called PilotWorks for GovMax and sold to other organizations as a Web-hosted application, is also helping the county to work beyond its borders ? the county is sharing IT resources with a local school board. Hanson said he hopes to use the software to expand citizen participation and improve the county's operational efficiency.

Business case support, whether explicitly geared to OMB 300 or intended for generic use by nonfederal organizations, is a feature, not a product, and is available in several kinds of software that you'll probably buy primarily for another use.

"People are moving from, 'I just want to execute the form,' to 'I want to run my organization like a business,' " said Gil DiGioia, director of federal sales at Niku.

Portfolio management software arguably is the most important, and it's certainly the most logical response to both the letter and the spirit of business case requirements. These expensive, powerful enterprise programs from Metier, Niku, Pacific Edge, ProSight and several others are designed for planning and managing projects as if they were an investment portfolio. They provide high-level dashboard views that show at a glance which areas are over budget or behind schedule, as well as collaborative portals that enable group decision-making on business plans.

Portfolio management is a nearly ideal way not only to collect the data needed for the business case, but also to track the IT projects that receive funding to ensure they meet the stated objectives.

Another significant and closely related category is performance-management software from companies such as Pilot Software and CorVu. These companies attempt to link strategic planning to operations by placing tools for budgeting, financial management and forecasting under the same umbrella as scorecards, dashboards, business intelligence and other mechanisms for measuring the progress of initiatives.

Business intelligence tool vendors that include Business Objects Americas Inc., Cognos Corp. and Hyperion Solutions Corp., offer a similar mix of features, albeit with a BI slant.

Offering more limited business case features are a smattering of products, such as Casewise Systems' IT Architecture Accelerator, a software-design tool with built-in FEA support; and's Case Builder series, low-end software with basic guidelines and business case presentation support.

A few free tools, including one from Microsoft, also are available, although solely to prepare and submit Exhibit 300 documentation in the Extensible Markup Language data format required by OMB.

David Essex is a freelance writer in Antrim, N.H.

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