IT management for the initiated
Rasmus Holm is an independent IT consultant, currently working as a Senior Adviser on a major project for ProData Management. He has a long past in the public sector and thus knows all the ins and outs of the system. The official ones as well as those one never hears about. Listen in.
Interview with Rasmus Holm, Management consultant.
You could not see it if you did not know it was there. But Rasmus Holm is nothing less than a specialist in running public sector IT projects with both the technical and managerial skills required to navigate what can be a political minefield. But Holm began his career in a completely different place. After finishing his media coordinator course in Herning in 1999, he was hired by a printing house in Haslev where his responsibilities as a system administrator included building up the company's IT department. After a few years in that function, he got his first job in the public sector as a system administrator for what was then the Danish Ministry of Business and Economic Affairs, in 2003, when – in his own words – he was hired as a 'hard-core technician' who produced scripts and other geeky things.
'I was sometimes allowed to be involved as a project team member for various projects, and I was also given project management training while I worked there. After a few years I was promoted to technical manager and sat next to the operations manager who was responsible for HR management. When he went out on stress leave in 2008, I took over his functions and became the operations manager responsible for 17 people and an IT installation providing support and operations for about 2,000 users. That same year, the IT department at the Ministry of Economics and Business Affairs was merged with the IT department at the Ministry of Finance, so we went from a staff of 25 to 55 and I ended up as operations manager,' says Holm. Later, he was also involved in the formation of the Danish Agency for Governmental IT Services – Statens IT. Originally the unit was to be established under the Ministry of Taxation, but Statens IT was instead organised under the Ministry of Finance, where Rasmus Holm was placed. 'As I result, I ended up responsible for operations of all the general applications. The system portfolio supported more than 11,000 users.'
In other words, Holm has vast experience of public-sector IT projects, which has been extremely useful to him as a Senior Adviser for ProData Management, where he is currently guiding a large public-sector customer through a comprehensive IT modernisation process.
'The customer had been sitting there for 18 months with an improvement programme that another consultancy had produced for them. They needed supervision and opened a dialogue with ProData Management about the assignment. This developed into a meeting with the management at the customer's organisation and five days later ProData Management delivered a proposal along with several recommendations. That proposal took the organisation further in five days than they had come in the preceding 18 months. Thereafter, I was introduced as the management consultant they needed for the assignment,' says Holm, and explains that the first time he visited the customer, he also stepped into a major technical and managerial challenge.
ProData Management, headed up by Rasmus Holm, ended up providing both supervision and strategic advice on a viable technological direction for the customer's continued work.
Right and wrong choices
As Holm explains, there are several rules of the game that you not only need to be aware of but would be wise to follow when you are working with project management in the public sector.
'There is a lot of bureaucracy in the public sector because they want to make sure everything is done by the book. All agreements must be kept under rigorous control because they are horrified at the thought of being accused of cronyism. But sometimes that fear also gets in the way of immediate common sense. For instance, when even small projects or purchases have to go through the SKI agreements or even be put into large EU procurements. That prevents a swift decision-to-implementation process,' says Holm, and explains that this can also make it difficult for IT managers in the public sector to design a vendor-based IT strategy. Even if choosing a Microsoft platform would make the most sense for the organisation, for example, there are conditions in the system that make it difficult, if not impossible, to plan in that way.
'On the other hand, it ensures transparency in the purchasing process. Everyone can keep an eye on who is buying what from whom, and that is a very good thing. But basically I have to say that when I have worked as a manager in the public sector, it has sometimes been hard to make the right choice for the organisation because the right choice would have taken too long. So there have been times when I made the wrong choice because it would be faster,' says Holm.
When Holm is asked to identify the biggest development in the public sector in the last 10 years, he points at the stronger demands to run the government like a business.
'I witnessed several times how when there was money left over in the IT budget, sure enough, the individual unit would find a reason to buy something or another to make sure they got the same budget allocation the following year. Today the tendency is to think it is perfectly okay if we do not use the entire budget. Business-mindedness has become much more prevalent in the public sector. At least within central government, which has been my main bailiwick.'
'This is also where management has become an interesting product. As focus has increased on improving efficiency and optimisation, it can be a good idea to bring in outsiders who can see things in a different light and are familiar with similar projects in other types of organisations. Nor is it entirely immaterial to bring in someone who worked for so many years in the public sector and knows what it takes to get projects up and running. There are many in the system who are dependent upon the decisions of others. In these cases, it is important to know who has to support a project for it to have any chance,' says Holm and relates a final example from his day-to-day experience.
'In one project that I have been involved in, they work a lot in independent silos. As a result, it can be difficult for us as external consultants to find the good business case in this particular department. But when we looked across the organisations at several different managers, we were suddenly able to see an outstanding business case. This silo division is typical of the public sector and it can be very useful when someone comes along and asks the right questions across the entire spectrum.'
Name: Rasmus Holm
Position: Independent IT Consultant and Senior IT Adviser in PDM
Education: Degree in media coordination and many single-subject courses at ITU