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Pure hard technical skills will lose every time: National Blood Authority CIO

As a smaller government department unable to compete with the big boys, the National Blood Authority is focused on culture building and soft skills.

Throughout his nine years at Australia's National Blood Authority (NBA), executive director and CIO Peter O'Halloran has moved from being essentially a one-man IT band, to running a team of just under 30 people.

During that time, the NBA has moved from using procurement systems involving faxes to get blood and blood-related products into hospitals, to using web-based systems within hospitals and clinics that are saving the agency money. In 2014-15, after years of slowing growth in spending, the agency passed over the threshold into negative territory and saw its spend contract by 16 percent.

"There's not many people that celebrate their budget getting smaller," O'Halloran said at the Marcus Evans Australian CIO Summit on Monday. "To my mind, that is the best achievement we could possibly have."

"There was no stock-outs across the country, patients were getting the products they needed, and they were arguably better products than they'd ever had before, and we were spending less money."

O'Halloran said the IT systems developed and introduced by the agency could take half the credit for the cost savings, and the key to that was having the right people in his IT team.

"We have built an IT team that's very much around the core capabilities, [and] that's not the hard technical skills, that's the soft skills. Can they understand the engagement around what the organisation does? Can they work with other people? Can they go and talk to users? And I don't care who they are — whether they are a tester, a business analyst, a developer, an executive assistant, or anyone else — they all have to be able to go and talk to real people, empathise with them and understand what they are trying to do," he said.

"That being said, most of them have pretty good technical skills, and if they don't we can work on it, but I've found based on what we have done over the years: Pure, hard technical skills lose out every single time."

For the team at the NBA, O'Halloran said it is important to focus on culture, especially as a small government agency that cannot compete at the top end of the IT market in Canberra, and has to rely on a large number of contractors to get IT staff, as public service wage rates are not the most attractive option for many.

"Apart from the staff themselves, no one else knows how they are employed and there is no other difference in how we treat them. We treat everyone the same, we don't distinguish on their name-badge that they're staff or contractor, we don't deny people professional development opportunities because they are a contractor, we don't sit there and say 'I'm sorry, you're a contractor, you can't come to the team lunch today'.

"To my mind, every single one of those people is there to contribute to our mission and to help us make a difference, and they are all equally important."

The results, O'Halloran said, has been high retention of staff, especially when coupled with the knowledge of how each role contributes to the organisation.

"Every single staff member is our organisation ... can tell you what they do, and how that adds up to the bigger picture of actually helping someone get a blood product, or avoiding going to hospital, or helping a clinician ensure they've got the right clinical guidelines, every single one of us can all understand how our jobs and our roles stack together to get to that point," he said.

"And that's a key thing because if you are sitting there at the end of the day as finance clerk ... actually understanding these bills you are paying, these accounts you are paying helps these products get to these patients, makes a big difference."

Thanks to having to answer to nine governments and working in a highly regulated environment such as health care, the NBA CIO said the agency was lucky enough to stumble onto what would today be called agile development and user-centric methodologies.

"We worked out what worked for us, and we kept on going down that path ...I was working in a very conservative industry where everything had to be validated, and I had to prove myself to nine governments," he said. "Doing pieces at a time, where we actually engaged people, and actually got them confident that it would actually work — for us is a big thing."

O'Halloran did warn though, that using a pure agile approach and constantly pushing out updates can lead to user fatigue.

"At times we were ready to push out new enhancements and ideas faster than users would accept them, and if people are going down the agile path, I would caution you to be very careful, you can have too much change."

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About Chris Duckett

Some would say that it is a long way from software engineering to journalism, others would correctly argue that it is a mere 10 metres according to the floor plan.During his first five years with CBS Interactive, Chris started his journalistic advent...

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