The Digital Transformation Center (DTC) was established in 2016 by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Innovation, designed as a center of excellence for Salesforce and other SaaS technologies across the VA. Under the DTC’s new, shared model, VA offices could quickly actualize their ideas. This allowed the VA to handle business problems with Veteran data, complex internal workflows, and unique case management projectswith impressive speed and flexibility. Since the Salesforce platform offered basic infrastructure that was ready to use, teams began to roll out solutions in short cycles of Agile-based configuration.
As of October 2017, in a now-adolescent environment under the Office of Information and Technology (OIT), the B3 Group team has built on the DTC’s foundations creating and enforcing development standards and guidelines, managing every deployment to the platform, and supporting 22,000+ users with overall system administration.
The live projects B3 Group supports are a White House hotline case management tool for Veteran inquiries to the President, a module to coordinate academic detailing programs in the Veteran Health Administration (VHA), and a time-tracking application for Veteran Benefits Administration employees.
The architecture of the platform constantly changes, calling for frequent adjustments to technical guidance for system integrators. The B3 Group team deploys 20+ development projects every month using a maturing continuous integration process on GitHub. B3 also maintains the Authority to Operate for the entire platform, allowing teams to build without needing to labor through the process on their own. With increasing VA support for the digital transformation approach, the DTC’s customer base and scope of influence are growing every day.
Resistance to Change
An ongoing strategic problem in the DTC’s work is determining how (and when it is appropriate) to apply the principles of digital transformation to traditional IT service delivery in the government. By the time the B3 Group team greets new development teams with DTC onboarding, many are ready to take the plunge. However, the team still encounters customers hesitant to move away from methods that, while slower, have less uncertainty and more “insurance.” B3 Group works with dozens of teams who have many perspectives and opinions on Agile development, milestones/schedules, and the “definition of done.”
Some of the challenges faced are common to any modernization effort,like dealing with unpredictable user adoption, delivering successful change management, and accurately assessing return on investment. Others make it more difficult to chart a path forward based on norms and best practices. For example, most VA security and privacy policies were not written with the cloud or multiple integrations in mind, so it can feel like an implementation of these policies attempts to rewrite the precedent.
Most Salesforce projects go live within ten weeks of kicking off at the VA—a striking difference from their homegrown counterparts, which can take years to design, develop, test, and implement. Meanwhile, as many teams develop rapidly and at once, it can be difficult for the DTC—in part a governance body—to enforce effective change control processes.
Different modules on VA’s Salesforce platform might share common “objects,” or database tables, and many release custom objects as well. Without having started from a comprehensive design, the VA’s evolution on Salesforce is conducted piecemeal, complicating the task of maintaining a thorough understanding of its architecture. Individual projects have essentially handed the oversight of this architecture to the DTC, so our federated position carries more burden to keep every object straight.
Balancing Time and Resources
Technical DTC services span everything from Tier 1 helpdesk cases to complex troubleshooting and development assistance. In providing these services, the B3 Group team regularly struggles with balancing quality and time as well as with the added challenge of having hundreds of customers compete for the team’s attention. Since the digital transformation culture is new at the VA, few requests are truly straightforward, and every day there are technical and governance questions in combinations that haven’t been solved before. With every customer interconnected, interdependent, and soliciting varied levels of support, the B3 Group team is always renegotiating the balance of what percent of the team’s resources go to which areas of work.
The B3 Group team is continuously adapting and learning lessons in real time and the DTC has also come a long way in becoming a mature, sophisticated institution.
B3 Group works closely alongside several Salesforce architects to manage change control and exceptions to standard DTC policies. B3 Group has formalized these policies and documented clear procedures to help projects release more smoothly. The team created a sturdier onboarding process to introduce new teams to these policies, minimizing the possibility of confusing knowledge gaps. As B3 Group’s entire body of work pertains to Salesforce, the team has made a point to store everything—resources for development teams, important decisions and announcements.
While standardizing processes and publishing comprehensive documentation has helped make the DTC’s work more productive, most important to B3 Group’s success has been the strength and flexibility of its team. The learning mindset is critical to the progress of digital transformation in any environment, and at the VA, B3 Group is representative of that narrative. In a little over a year, the DTC has embodied this spirit, cultivating a team where each member is willing to learn, work together, and continuously improve.
Amid B3 Group’s specific difficulties, and the general challenge of supporting a large federal healthcare agency, the DTC team’s ability to adapt, collaborate, and problem-solve has achieved the trust of customers and partners. As B3 Group proceeds towards a second contract expansion, these are the exact qualities that will be valued for the life of the project.
Digital transformation at the VA was, and continues to be, an experiment. The challenges the team faces daily—how and where to protect sensitive data, by what methods to govern a shared platform, which interdependent activities are whose responsibilities, etc.—are still brewing problems, and for B3 Group, working on them is the predominant reward.
“B3 Group is a real pleasure to have to support such a critical VA Cloud Platform on Salesforce. They truly care about their work, their response time, and the end result.” – Customer in a quality review.