When Suresh Soundararajan took the job of chief information officer at the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) almost three years ago, he knew he needed to enable staff to be more effective and efficient. The IT department fields around 2,000 inquiries per week via email, chat, and phone, and most are for basic questions. He knew automation could alleviate much of this burden.
“You’re doing manual data entry, or you’re reconciling something, so you have pain points. We’re looking at those pain points and going after that low-hanging fruit,” Soundararajan says.1
But he knew it wasn’t going to be as simple as just rolling out automation tools and expecting everyone throughout the department to immediately see the benefits. Like any public health agency, VDH’s staff has advanced degrees and decades of experience, and they expect their expertise to drive decisions. And, as with any employer, administrative staff often worry that automation may impact job security. Soundararajan knew he needed to address both of these concerns.
Moving fast and breaking things are often seen as a hallmark of technology startups. But established organizations like VDH are increasingly finding that all those things that were broken along the way to “new and improved” once belonged to somebody. Asking someone to take up a new technology or process after you just smashed what they had worked on isn’t the best way to spur adoption.
Soundararajan addressed this challenge by demonstrating to the VDH staff that he and his team are aware of the staff’s roadblocks and by making efforts to solve them. For example, his team is currently working on a chatbot that will handle basic inquiries from the public, allowing administrative staff to spend more time on higher-level problems. And along the way, Soundararajan is making sure to communicate why he’s doing certain things so that everyone can see the value. Workers are involved in the process, because people support what they help create.
“I have to show value and show the proof that this actually works,” he says. “It’s a big organizational change to communicate this. We’re a big agency. People have started seeing meaningful automation as an advantage.”
And as workers hand off basic and mundane administrative tasks to automation tools, they are now free to pursue higher-level responsibilities that align more closely with the jobs of tomorrow, demonstrating that success means having better problems to solve. For example, Soundararajan says employees who were once considered pure database administrators are now transitioning into cloud architect or automation engineer roles.
“The technology is shifting, so now workers can work in roles that make more sense and fit the future,” Soundararajan says. This, in turn, helps the organization as a whole operate at a higher level and enhances mission effectiveness.
A side benefit to all this automation is that it’s helping to future-proof the department. Soundararajan says that in the past, agencies like his would plan technology deployments on a 10-year timeline. But the pace of innovation is so much faster today that if organizations are using something they built 10 years ago, they’re probably falling behind.
So he and his team aren’t simply automating specific tasks. They’re developing a concept for building a flexible platform that should be able to incorporate new technologies in the coming years. The platform would be capable of hosting several different functions—such as licensing, permitting, certifications, etc.—that currently operate on their own legacy systems.
“In the late ’90s and 2000s, we thought a system should survive at least 10 years,” Soundararajan says. “Now it’s shifted to three to five years. What we’re doing today is building a flexible platform that can accommodate new technologies in the future.”
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