Regime Change

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in January of 2009.

I’ve been pretty fascinated by the news reports about how the Obama staff reacted to the technology in place at the White House. If you haven’t been tracking this, you can read the full story, but the short story is this: the Mac/Blackberry/Facebook-savvy Obama staffers were shocked to find ancient systems and technology in use at the White House “Windows XP, MS Office 2003, traditional phone lines, and web filtering in place” in other words, the same stuff my org uses. I found myself both sympathetic and skeptical regarding their plight, because I am a big fan of all of the new technology that they are familiar with, but they walked into a network that is a lot like 90% of the businesses out there. The Bush Administration, perhaps surprisingly, was fairly current in their use of technology.

Some quick things I draw from this:

* The Obama campaign distinguished themselves by their smart use of modern, internet technology, and that use played a major role in their successful campaign.

* The shock they’re facing is less about the technology in place than it is about the culture they’re moving into. Political teams run freely and nimbly, and Howard Dean established the Web as the infrastructure of choice in 2004. Businesses, like the White House, do not drive so close to the cutting edge, for a variety of good reasons, such as the need for standardization and security.

* Over the next few months, the Obama-ans are going to compromise, and I’m dying to learn what choices they’ll make.

In my work, I’m on both sides of that fence every day, working with staff to understand why we have to standardize in order to manage our systems, stay a little behind the curve in order to avoid risk, and stick with applications like Microsoft Office because they have the mature feature set that we require. At the same time, I rally my staff to be creative in finding tools and solutions for our people, to stay abreast of which new tools are going to be worth the risk in terms of the benefits they offer, and understand that, should we get too far behind, it will be as risky as being too far out on the technological edge. We don’t want to fall off of any cliffs, nor do we want to stand still as all of the other cars race around us.

Some of us, like the leader of the free world, can’t imagine a day without a Blackberry; others, like a former free world leader, don’t even want an email account. Most of us live in this world where we have to creatively embrace the new while we tighten our grips on the traditional, because technology platforms thrive on stability while they obsolesce rapidly. Where the Obama White House winds up might be a good indicator of where we should all be. I hope we’ll have a window into that.

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