How IT departments can manage DIY technology

Staff in companies are using low-cost accessible technology to connect their customers and innovate. One in three company employees are doing this already, under the radar.

Staff in companies are using low-cost accessible technology to connect their customers and innovate. One in three company employees are doing this already, under the radar. Such a person is a highly empowered and resourceful operative (Hero). How can IT adapt to this new generation of IT-savvy users, who work around the restrictions of corporate IT.

In examining hundreds of cases of Hero-driven innovations, we've learned a lot about organisational behaviour. At companies such as Best Buy, the Philadelphia Eagles and Intuit, the IT groups, managers, and these IT-savvy staff have come to an understanding: they've worked out ways to support each other and keep the company thriving while keeping systems safe.

We've seen many more cases where companies lock down systems, say no to the IT-savvy end-user and make innovation difficult. Employees who know and understand the power of IT at these companies become discouraged or may give up and quit, leaving the organisation unable to respond in the face of powered customers.

In a Hero-powered business, empowered employees are a continuous force for innovation in customer service. But it takes three groups working together to make this customer-focused innovation possible and safe: IT, managers, and the highly empowered and resourceful operatives themselves.

It's not easy for them all to get along. When they do, it's because they each understand what they're uniquely responsible for and how they work together. We call this new way of thinking the Hero Compact.

Hero Compact

Managers, IT, and Heroes must work together differently in an organisation that supports customer-focused innovation.

  • IT must support the resourceful operatives with technology innovation, giving leaders the tools to manage risk, and scaling up successful solutions.
  • Managers are responsible for making customer-focused innovation a priority, establishing the governance structures to support the IT expert users, and working with IT to manage the business risk of technology.
  • The expert users know what customers need and have a duty to experiment with technologies that solve customer problems, while operating within the safety principles established by IT and their managers.

In retrospect, you can see that the successful companies and projects described in the first half of our book adopted this compact. In the rest of the book, we will formalise this: we will show exactly what a company needs to do - in IT, in management, and with its employees to make Hero-powered innovation successful.

IT's role in the Hero Compact

Let's start with IT departments and their responsibilities for technology. In the past, IT mostly had two jobs: the first was to build and support big technology projects - corporate databases, core business applications such accounting systems, network infrastructure, servers, and PCs for the information workers in companies; the second was to make sure any systems that these workers used were safe and that they kept data secure and functioned properly.

Highly empowered resourceful operatives threaten both of these jobs. People who fit the IT-expert profile are do-it-yourselfers. They pick technologies that often aren't sanctioned by corporate IT. Why is this happening?

For one thing, they are exposed as consumers to powerful mobile, video, cloud, and social technologies. They see Facebook and ask, "Why can't we do an employee social network?" They make videos of their kids and say, "I could make training videos." They collaborate in their spare time with fellow volunteers on Google Docs and wonder if their company could use them.

Because most of these tools are free or cheap and easy to use, many of your information workers are mastering them right now. We call this trend 'technology populism'. Researchers at Computer Sciences Corporation have called it the "consumerisation of information technology". But whatever you call it, it means that new technologies are creeping into every workplace. Even if the PCs are locked down, personal mobile devices that browse the Web aren't - so people end up using their own technologies at work all the time.

The second reason that these IT experts use DIY technology solutions is that they work with empowered customers. Whether they are in marketing, sales, or customer support, they are typically directly in touch with customers and their problems and desires. It's just too tempting to solve the problems right then and there with technologies that are readily accessible. Whether it's an account manager prospecting on LinkedIn or Gary Koelling putting a server under his desk, technology solutions, created by these Heroes, spread throughout the organisation.

What should an IT department do? It can't run these projects; they are too small and there are too many of them. It can't outlaw all of them either - that's cutting off a huge source of customer-focused innovation. But for an IT professional, employees using DIY technology feels like a virus invading the body - it's alien.

IT's natural reaction is to say no, or at least "Whoa". After all, it is the responsibility of the CIO and the IT group to scale and secure the technology the company runs on and stay on the right side of the law. If they don't have a part in selecting and deploying the tool, they get very nervous.

It's the job of IT to help expert IT users pick the right technologies. In the Best Buy example, IT helped make the transition to the right platform for Best Buy's internal sharing software. Increasingly, supporting technology innovation as a trusted counsellor will become the IT manager's role.

The IT department must also help to manage technology risk. Take iPhones. One IT manager at a global insurance company described it to us this way.

"I know I'm going to have to support the iPhone. Everybody is asking for it. Even my CEO wants to know when I'm going to let him use his iPhone. But my problem with iPhone right now [in April 2009] is that I can't yet stand up in front of a judge and explain how it meets our compliance requirements. And that's part of my job."

While IT cannot eliminate risk, it is the IT group's role to assess and mitigate risks that come from Hero projects. IT must also scale up the Hero solutions that work. This is where IT's traditional role intersects Hero initiatives most directly.

Finally, IT must be involved with corporate systems designed to improve employee innovation and collaboration.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpt from Empowered. Copyright 2010 Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler. All rights reserved.

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