The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is creating new digital workflows to streamline processes and automate administrative functions. The goal is to create efficient, modern services that enable NCI staff to stay focused on supporting cancer research and advancing scientific knowledge to help people live longer, healthier lives.

Jeff Shilling, acting CIO at NCI, said at ServiceNow’s Knowledge 19 conference that NCI is focused on IT innovation and business improvement across the organization, and shared lessons learned from experiences over the past five years.

He advises IT leaders to consider their current architecture – centralized? Distributed? Federated? And, to evaluate their current level of IT maturity. “Are you starting IT Service Management? Do you have an Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL)?” he asks.

“You have to know your organization, you have to know your staff, and you have to know your capabilities.” Shilling added, “and then you have to work with them to create that recipe [for success].”

“The goal is a full strategic plan aligned with your business, which means when you digitize one part of the business and you are more efficient there…you have the authority to shift the labor to where you need it,” says Shilling. “If you don’t have that authority, then digitizing a part of the business is going to be super disruptive…you have to really focus on understanding these kinds of designs and limitations.”

Shilling also emphasized the importance of a culture focused on change. “The organization needs to view IT as vital to the success of the organization,” he says. “If leadership does not see you at the table every day, it is much more difficult to transform.”

NCI created its own recipe to transition to IT Service Management (ITSM) and built an IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), working with ServiceNow.

The goal: to create “a manageable state of IT innovation and business improvement.” Building on success with ITSM, the team is evolving ITSM with a Configuration Management Database (CMBD) and extending business process automation to groups that traditionally don’t offer services, such as facilities management and communications.

Shilling and team specifically looked at tasks that require workflow, approvals, process management, and reporting capabilities.

They created a repeatable process, broken down into four steps. First, the team identifies NCI groups with interest in digital transformation and business process re-engineering. They execute a business analysis next to identify new ways to accomplish goals, and do value process mapping. Next, they develop an application to meet the minimum viable requirements and validate with the customers – ensuring their feedback is included. Finally, the team implements each new application, creating a deployment launch plan (including communications) and a plan to sunset old methodologies and tools.

The newly digitized workflows have had significant impacts on how the NCI workforce works, and how they deliver services to their stakeholders.

With ITSM, NCI was able to lower its number of incident tickets, request tickets, and change tickets once there was a uniform place to submit, review, and address those items.

From 2014 to 2018, NCI reduced its 372,000 incident tickets to 94,200; request tickets from 162,000 to 51,700, and change tickets from 5,400 to 900.

This means the IT team can spend more time focused on innovation and strategic priorities, and means that users have a significantly better experience.

“The user experience is the most important part. That’s why we’re here,” said Shilling.

Shilling explained that once NCI implemented ITSM, building NIH Central, they realized they could accomplish broader business process automation.

Overall, the team is focusing on customer service management, and building on ITSM success by working with other groups with workflows similar to IT, including the tech transfer group, and the office of acquisition. Shilling says digitization is helping make big improvements in these areas.

In one example, the NCI team configured an application to request genomics data. Previously, employees (including scientists and doctors) would need to fill out a paper-based form and route to a series of approvers for signatures. “We want to minimize the administrative work on our mission staff,” says Shilling.

With the new digital workflow, employees use a digital form that is automatically routed to each approver for a digital signature. The updated process is faster, easier for the requestors and approvers, and provides visibility into request trends.

One of Shilling’s biggest takeaways from NCI’s efforts to date is the importance of evaluating your capabilities as you launch modernization efforts. Shilling advises agencies to consider if the contracts and staff are in place to be successful. He also recommends working with an integrator, explaining that while each IT team knows the agency, the integrator knows what’s possible. And, he highlights the importance of legacy integration, as the older systems contain significant data and knowledge.

Shilling said his team built support for change by sharing success stories with videos and documentation, and staying focused on customer satisfaction, noting the most important metric is if employees are using and getting value from the application.

“You have to set goals,” says Shilling. “You might only take small steps, but let the organization know it won’t be status quo.”

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.