EPA developing ART of business modeling

WINNER: Processes & Practices

To Ethan McMahon, environmental information architect at the EPA's Office of Technology, Operations and Policy in Washington, D.C., business modeling technology is more about business than technology.

From left: James Berry, SRA: system admin.; Ethan McMahon, EPA: project manager; Jack Deppe, SRA: tool manager; Neal Richards, SRA: lead modeler; (inset bottom) Joan Karrie, EPA: database manager; (inset top) Angela Parks, SRA: help desk/model manager; Not pictured: Kadian Mitchell, SRA: systems support.

Having completed development of the EPA's new Architecture Repository and Tool (ART) for creating dynamic, continually updated models, he urged developers of similar projects to "focus on the business and not on the technology."

"A lot of us fall into the trap of seeing things with technology glasses on because we feel comfortable there," said McMahon. "The reason technology exists is to enable business. If we don't focus on that, we'll keep making very expensive IT apps that aren't as useful as they could be."

In leading the team of contract developers who built ART, which puts a modeling tool on EPA staff members' desktops, he sought to focus on the business and human goals of modeling.

The core tool for building ART was the Metis set of client and server tools for creating, visualizing, changing, sharing and managing enterprise architecture and other knowledge models. As a native eXtensible Markup Language (XML) visual modeling tool, McMahon explained that it provides a platform for modeling collaborative initiatives between and within organizations that have standardized on XML for data exchange between apps over the Internet.

"Fundamentally," he said in his documentation for ADT's Innovator Awards, "ART enables decision-makers to gain a deeper understanding of their organization's Information Technology operations, business processes, and the relationship between them."

Currently ART is being used for modeling at 10 EPA program offices, McMahon explained. He said the tool makes it "easy for modelers to see how their activities fit into the big picture." Ease of use was a critical requirement for the development, he noted, because it was important that users realize the value of the tool so it would not be ignored by the very people it was built to serve.

The development team paid close attention to the requirements of users, who had a variety of business tasks that they felt a modeling tool could help them to complete, McMahon said. The tool was designed to provide model views that support "business strategies, processes and information flow for mission-critical operations such as portfolio management and capital appropriations," he explained. Users can zoom in and out of the model views to see whole operations or processes, or drill down into a detailed view.

Because the ART developers made it easy to use, the application is already meeting the needs of users; McMahon said that future plans include making ART available to more departmental managers.

There are three key ways that the new tool is being used by EPA managers, he said. "First, they want to understand the processes so they can improve them. Second, they want to see if there are duplicated processes across their larger organization so they can take advantage of the process itself or supporting information and technology that could be used together."

But perhaps the third use of the ART tool best illustrates McMahon's philosophy of focusing modeling tools on business needs. "There are a significant number of EPA employees eligible to retire in the next year or two," he explained of the environmental watchdog agency that was created in 1970 by the Nixon administration. After 34 years, the agency is experiencing a potential wave of employee retirements, including those who began their careers there.

"When those people retire, their institutional knowledge goes with them," McMahon noted. "So it is pretty important that people start to record these things before all this information walks out the door."

Some of this knowledge is being entered in Microsoft Word files and Visio diagrams, he said, and some even more basic information technology is being used.

"People are modeling with tools they feel comfortable with," McMahon said. "Typically, so far it's been in Visio. Honestly, some of it is being done just on pieces of paper. If you're going to do it, you're going to want to understand how it goes on paper first. But Visio becomes a typical first cut at this. As people become more familiar with using ART, they'll use that."

Once the business knowledge is captured, managers will be able to use ART to model ways that employees can work with new technology systems to perform tasks formerly done by retiring staff members.

"The good thing is that once you have that information documented," McMahon explained, "you can find out what parts of it can be performed by less-experienced people or complemented by information technology."

When that happens, McMahon and his development team members from the consulting firm of SRA International Inc., Fairfax, Va. -- who built ART with the Metis Enterprise visual modeling toolset from Computas NA of Sammamish, Wash. -- will have achieved their business goal with their technology.

Project: Architecture Repository and Tool (ART)

Purpose: Provides users with an automated electronic modeling tool that gives them a continually updated model of the EPA's enterprise architecture.

Benefits: Helps EPA staffers understand the relationship between IT ops and business processes; preserves institutional knowledge.

Platforms: Windows 2000, Microsoft SQL Server TOOLS Computas NA's Metis Enterprise

About the Author

Rich Seeley is Web Editor for Campus Technology.


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