Upside of a really bad day at the office: tribe embraces technology

Wed, 2015-04-29 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

What began as a disaster for a Michigan tribal community quickly became a transformative moment as government officials of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi realized something important: they needed to embrace new technology rather than mistrust it.

Just as Matt Clay and his crew were testing and putting the finishing touches on three microwave radio towers, an electrical storm all but fried the installation. That was three years ago and Clay, the group’s new information technology director at the time, found he had a serious problem.

A very bad day at the office
"We were still testing the equipment when the lightning struck, blowing out one tower and our entire disaster recovery server room. In one second, the entire tribal government was shut down and we realized our disaster recovery site was not operable. We worked all night and got things up and running the next day. It was a terrible experience; however, we learned a great deal about our infrastructure," said Clay, currently health services director for the community.

The experience led Clay to commit to building the tribe’s technology department into one of the best, and one that its government employees would trust and rely on.

The tribal government’s infrastructure was old and didn’t work well, to the point where education department employees shunned computers in favor of paper forms and even its finance department was leery of digital technology. "People called rather than emailed – no wonder, with only six megabytes of bandwidth, our email services and VOIP were not fast or reliable. I reasoned that if we get tribal government employees to work better with technology, the community could increase control over how we deliver services and govern our people."

Solutions from Microsoft
Fortunately, Clay’s commitment was shared by others. The Pokagon’s Microsoft account manager recommended that he work with Planet Technologies, considered a top provider of Council Lead Partner Microsoft's consulting services for public sector and commercial organizations. What Planet Technologies could bring to the table included experience in business intelligence, cloud services, unified communications, records management, workflow automation, systems management and more.

The Tribal Council agreed to Clay’s five-year plan for the IT upgrade.

It turned out to be a good fit. “Matt and his team clearly understood that you have to get the core infrastructure in place before you can start building services for citizens,” said Andrew Kagan, CTO for Planet Technologies. “They introduced virtualization and automated management in the data center before focusing on applications and cloud-based productivity tools. They’ve done great work.”

How the community benefits
The technology upgrade has been felt in the community in all manner of ways: from economic development to better housing, healthcare and social services for Elders -- and particularly improvements in education where it has provided educational associates in the field with tools to do their jobs far more efficiently. Much of the paper shuffling is gone, and technologies such as Microsoft’s customer relationship management software, SharePoint and Lync, plus mobile communications technologies and others are used daily. The upgrade also has enabled an app to help students learn the native Potawatomi language outside the classroom and Kindles for Elders who live in remote areas.

As Clay put it, "Our biggest achievement is that people are starting to trust technology. People in the departments are embracing online workflows. Finance department staffers access data daily from our CRM system. And as our citizens see how we use technology, they are getting more interested themselves. I love it that our Elders are asking for e-readers! That’s an amazing testament to the band’s achievement bridging tradition with technology and getting the best of both worlds."

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Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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