Thomas Sasala helped lead the Army's desktop virtualization efforts. (Rob Curtis/Staff / Staff)
Desktop virtualization is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that continues to gain momentum in the government amid shrinking budgets and efficiency pushes. Like any major changes to the status quo in how people do their daily jobs, moving to virtual desktop infrastructure can be an uphill battle.
Often, challenges associated with VDI—or other major IT transformations—are less technical and more cultural. However, it doesn’t have to be a tug-of-war between the defenders of the status quo and the agents of change. If done right, implementing VDI and other technology-based efficiency initiatives can be successful for both the everyday users and the bottom line.
1. Manage change and expectations
A big part of managing change is having unwavering commitment from top stakeholders, which is critical to any IT transformation. But there’s more to it than just executive buy-in. You also need buy-in at the other levels of the organization too, and that comes from regular engagement with users that helps keep expectations realistic.
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The idea of change management and expectation management was a major lesson for Defense Department officials who launched a VDI pilot in 2009 that today spans the Joint Staff, Army headquarters and much of the military’s National Capital Region reach.
“When the Joint Staff goes all in on something in the Pentagon a lot of people pay attention,” said Thomas Sasala, who helped spearhead the effort as CTO of the Army IT Agency. “Unfortunately this time there were more people waiting for it to be a failure than it not to be a failure; there’s a lot of organizational will behind keeping the existing environment in place. So don’t dismiss the change management activities when you’re trying to move from a traditional desktop environment.”
Sasala spoke as part of a panel at the July 22 Federal Innovation Summit in Washington.
Be upfront with users about what VDI really is and its implications, Sasala said. It is a different way of carrying out the Pentagon’s day-to-day business, not just another IT upgrade.
“Do not approach VDI as an IT thing. It is not an IT change—it is an organizational change commitment,” Sasala said. “Stakeholder engagement, expectation management and change management are the most important thing you can address when you’re doing something like VDI.”
2. Measure how well it’s going
Too often, IT initiatives are simply put in place with little or no follow-up. But to successfully get VDI rolling, it’s important to continually and regularly check back and see how it’s going and what might need to be adjusted to maximize success.
“Users want to be able to control their own destiny, and what I typically see is that the user experience needs to be accounted for,” said Devin Henderson, founder, president and CEO of DH Technologies. “The goal is to meet or exceed the current experience they’re having today. The only way you know if a VDI or similar project is successful or even close is if you want measure something.”
But metrics aren’t so easy when it comes to VDI or other major IT changes: Most users are likely to say they don’t like it because the way they were used to doing things has changed, Henderson noted.
“The problem is you have to be able to define success based around some tangible thing, and the closest we’ve been able to do is to…measure log-in times, application launch times on the existing desktop then compare that to VDI,” Henderson said. “Did I gain something? Are my log-in times shorter? Maybe I need to make some adjustments. These are vital components in order to find out if you’re on your way to success in VDI.”
3. Focus on core competencies
In the end, one of the major goals of implementing VDI is to achieve efficiencies by handing over the parts of the business you don’t have much business in, such as managing internal IT infrastructure when your agency mission is, say, energy research and development. Focusing on that ultimate goal of achieving the heart of your mission can make the transition a smoother one.
At the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratories, one VDI program is helping employees get their work done in more flexible ways that also improve security and give users more control, according to Nicole Ballard, service manager at Sandia.
“When you really think about it there’s nothing innovative about a desktop. But the desktop is what all of the people doing their work use in order to perform real innovation,” Ballard said. “To me that means it’s of paramount importance that we concentrate on the user experience.”
With 12,000 users and 30,000 endpoints onsite, Ballard said the VDI program, which is deployed to 1,500 desktops so far and on track to reduce costs by 25 percent over the next five years, is “just scratching the surface.”
“If I can get out of the infrastructure business and focus on my core competencies, which is the desktop, then I can get out of the way and let my users perform the real innovation,” she said.