The Value of a Conversation

Taking time to talk to OMS vendors as well as leaders from agencies that have recently modernized their OMS can help the CIO drive clarity into requirements and improve the odds for a successful modernization project.

In corrections agencies across Europe, North America and Australia, numerous CIOs face a similar challenge. Their agencies have passed the point of trying to meet dynamic and complex information demands with a 20- to 30-year-old, custom-built OMS environment. Lack of flexibility, poor data quality, decreasing availability of mainframe skills, and the overall cost of ownership have taken their expected toll. And while these CIOs haven’t necessarily been granted approval to spend funds for replacement just yet, they have been directed to begin the planning process for OMS modernization.

As the single-most important – and expensive – information asset serving the agency, it is well understood that the planning process for a new OMS can’t be rushed. Given that it typically involves four separate tracks – political, operational, functional/technical, and financial – it is not uncommon for the effort to span some three to four years before the actual go-ahead for procurement has been granted. From that point, it is often another full year before a vendor is selected and a contract is finalized. For an investment of the scope and scale of an OMS, such a lengthy procurement process is justified.

While such processes can be onerous and seem frustratingly slow at times, they serve an important purpose, not only in the selection of the best solution, but also in minimizing the risk of project failure. Thus, the importance of internal alignment across all stakeholders is essential for the investment to pay off. But an inward-focused effort alone is unlikely to produce the clarity and direction needed to ensure success. The most proactive CIOs will approach the planning effort with a fundamental understanding that not all answers to the agency’s needs are in the building.

Consider this. In the time since the legacy environment was last implemented – more than a generation ago in many instances – it’s likely that none of the current agency leadership were involved in its planning. Moreover, the understanding of correctional business processes, combined with dramatic advances in the application of technology to address them, has forever altered the way corrections agencies capture, manage, analyze and understand their data. Finally, numerous agencies around the world have successfully implemented modern, COTS-based offender management systems, and multiple vendors have emerged with a specialization in OMS development and delivery.

Yet all too often, agencies planning to modernize the OMS will minimize or disregard completely the value of speaking with those who have important insight and information to share. There may be a strong belief that engagement with vendors will inject too much ‘selling’ into the process, and that such conversations will only confuse rather than clarify the planning effort. As well, the CIO may be convinced that agency needs are so unique that taking the time to consult counterparts from other agencies will waste time. From the vendor perspective, it is easy to spot planning processes that have placed limited value on outside communication. For example,

  • CIOs or senior technical staff are insufficiently networked among their peers, rarely if ever attending important professional gatherings, such as the annual summit of the Corrections Technology Association ( or the biennial Technology in Corrections conference of the International Corrections and Prisons Association (
  • The agency mandates that all vendor communication must go through an independent consultant which will communicate broad requirements to the market and summarize findings for the agency. Direct communication between the vendor and agency subject matter experts is not allowed. Such approaches can be successful, but if the consultant lacks an understanding of the corrections domain, it can result in a process which over-values certain technologies without truly understanding their fit and/or limitations in meeting agency information requirements.
  • The agency releases a Request for Information (RFI) just a few weeks or months prior to launching its formal Request for Proposals process. In such instances, it is a signal that the agency has likely ‘pre-selected’ a preferred vendor and is just going through the motions in requesting information from the market. As well, it can also signal that the agency is committed to a process of over-prescribing the solution rather than understanding what’s possible across multiple vendor approaches.

The internal discussion and planning process is essential; done well, it should clearly establish “Why” the modernization is necessary and should be prioritized over other investments. But the question of “How” to achieve desired outcomes is best informed through engagement with expertise from outside the agency – a combination of CIOs who have recently completed an OMS overhaul and specialized, experienced OMS vendors. By making time for early and consistent dialogue with outside expertise, the agency benefits in multiple ways. Such an approach will almost certainly uncover blind spots in the agency’s thinking. It will help the CIO to realize that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, that business process standards exist for correctional information management. Rather than slowing the process down, it will most likely accelerate it through sharpened understanding of technological capabilities and investment risk. Indeed, a well-structured planning effort will embrace vendor and CIO-network dialogue very early in the process, well before the official procurement processes kick in.

Through informal requests for information, on-site vendor discussions and product demonstrations, as well as visits to vendor offices, and fact-finding trips to agencies using vendor solutions, the CIO and the project team can gain a broad range of insight. While much of the focus is naturally on product capabilities and adaptability, such discussions often provide innovative, new ideas that may have significant operational impact and influence a vendor’s product roadmap. Most importantly, they will help the OMS project team to define essential requirements, both functional and technical, in a way that effectively communicates operational needs and desired strategic business outcomes as part of the request for proposal (RFP) process.

Conversely, when CIOs run a different planning process, in which internal requirements gathering and definition is emphasized over market consultation and open dialogue, the result is very often an RFP that is confusing and contradictory, which in turn causes the best vendors to avoid responding. The experienced vendors in the OMS market often look upon such procurements as highly risky, comprised of vague, poorly worded, conflicting requirements. Like the agency seeking to make the OMS investment, the experienced vendor also seeks to minimize risk, and will generally avoid such projects that lack clear business objectives or have a high probability of becoming management distractions.

A the heart of a comprehensive OMS modernization effort is a belief in the importance of business transformation. Such an investment carries with it the potential to dramatically alter the principal concerns of every agency – safety, security, recidivism, and cost. At the same time, it carries the very real risk that the selected solution will fail to deliver the value the agency requires. Examples of failed OMS projects at the large county, state and national level across Europe and the United States underscore the reality of this risk – millions of dollars squandered, years of effort wasted and multiple jobs lost. And invariably, when the post-mortem is completed, the lack of external engagement in the planning effort becomes abundantly clear.

Conversations with experienced CIOs and focused OMS vendors take time. You need to know where to find them and what to ask. You have to decide how to capture and incorporate their responses into your planning effort. But those conversations also add important, tangible value that far exceeds the time required to have them. OMS vendors can tell you what’s possible, and experienced CIOs can help you understand, anticipate and avoid the risks of project failure.

External communication and fact-finding adds another set of steps in the planning effort, without question. However, given the strategic importance of the investment – its size and potential transformational impact on the agency – it is effort well-spent by the CIO.

© 2018 Abilis Solutions. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Ken McGovern

In his role as senior advisor to Abilis, Ken provides strategic advice to the executive team by leveraging his extensive correctional industry knowledge gained over more than 10 years. As vice president for marketing and sales for Abilis for nearly five years, Ken was instrumental in the company’s success in securing new corrections agency contracts. As an active member of the Corrections Technology Association (CTA) and the International Corrections and Prisons Association (ICPA), he regularly engages with corrections business and technology leaders on their approaches to address long-term agency challenges.

Ken has more than 25 years in enterprise software markets, with emphasis in marketing, sales, product marketing and corporate strategy. He has an MBA from the University of British Columbia and a BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Arizona.

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