Are you choking innovation?

The recent CIO Exchange highlighted the transition of “1,000,000 acts of innovation” from an idea formed in a few CIO roundtables into a program for action. The CIOs involved realized that IT, which once drove innovation, lost its way and are looking for ways to renew IT’s innovation role. Innovation is just about bold new initiatives; much is back to the basics: how can IT do things better. The challenge is about finding and doing 1,000,000 incremental actions, with a few “ah-ha” bigger ones, that will make a difference in Canadian IT effectiveness.

Many things stifle innovation. In IT, these often include: lack of budget, the demands of security and privacy, and maintaining the integrity of corporate data. Leaving budget constraints aside, we take the others for granted, putting in policies and standard services catalogues as controls. Unfortunately, we also use them a crutch so we don’t have to look at IT as we deliver it against what IT could be or even against what’s already out there. And if IT value in your company is measured by minimizing costs, then IT isn’t focused on contributing value to the business.

The origin of standards

IT standards were first put in place to improve delivery processes, allow the business to interoperate effectively, and control costs. Competing word processing formats, e-mail protocols, and spreadsheet files required IT to prescribe standards so the company could share information and work together. Similarly, quantity purchasing of standardized desktop hardware configurations became the norm, as it reduced unit costs for both purchase and support. For security, a standard platform image for operating software, anti-virus, and office applications was mandated, locked down so that additional software couldn’t be added by the user, even if it would improve their productivity. Instead it was assumed that users would install “time wasting programs” and IT expanded its mandate to also being the corporate nanny.

out of touch?

Repeatable, cookie cutter configurations make user training and help desk support easier, but at a cost of being out of date and out of touch. While initially used by business, IT is now pervasive in everyone’s life. To expect your users to accept poorer technology in their work life than they have in their personal life breeds distrust and impacts productivity. In the past year, your business user has walked into a big box office store and bought a much more usable new computer for his home office based on current technology and a full suite of office and anti-virus software, installed with a warranty and help desk support for under $1000. And it’s unlocked so he can customize it to his needs and work style. That’s the point of comparison and IT comes out not looking good. That’s unfair, you say. What about those special applications that the desktop has to run and security? Unless those applications are the last of the left-overs from Y2K remediation and already on the way to the scrap heap, why are you buying/developing/installing software that isn’t operating system agnostic? If you expect your partners and customers to effectively interact with your IT infrastructure via standard interfaces – Web portals, etc. – to do business, why not the in-house staff? IT exists to enable them to do their jobs better to produce corporate success.

all about respect

“IT doesn’t get any respect or credit for what it does.” What have you done to earn that respect? Like sales, IT is as good as today’s results, not last year’s. When your business user takes work home because her home office system is faster and configured to her needs and work style, why should you get respect? She’s not getting what she needs to produce effectively from you. And when that user is on an Apple product: no support, not our standard, we can’t support everything, it would cost too much to add support. Until you’ve gone to the market to compare your help desk/desktop support costs against those who do this as their business, is it a cost constraint or are you refusing to think out of the box? When you compare, don’t cheat. Compare both the cost and the response time – do you guarantee one hour response by your help desk and pay a penalty if you don’t meet it? Then add in a technology refresh program. Can you go to your CFO and defend that your costs for a limited set of standard catalogue services is really providing better value to the company than what can be found on the open market?

Until you have looked at the market, you don’t know and can’t demonstrate that your services are providing that value. If you’re sure that going to market won’t beat your numbers, then don’t – you’ll find out from your CEO when he hears from either the CFO or one of the business owners.

The other claim supporting standard service catalogues is security. What security? Your employees are taking work home to do on their home systems, whether prohibited or not. And you know how: on unencrypted USB keys or if you’ve banned them and hot-melt glued the USB ports shut, sent home in plain text via Hotmail or Gmail accounts or their BlackBerries. USB keys and BlackBerries get lost, and “free” e-mail accounts are used for search engine data gathering.

A far better approach (an ‘innovation’ perhaps) would be to give every employee a secure USB key. Not a good solution because home systems risk additional exposure to viruses, etc.? Perhaps, but are the e-mails opened at the office any safer through your filtering system than the one their ISP has? And besides, you’ve installed anti-virus software on every desktop. As your employee desktops are also part of the work environment by your employee’s choice, why not give your employees a free anti-virus program for their home machines?

Of course I’m not arguing that standards and a standard service catalogues are a bad thing. It’s how they’re applied. Are you using them as an enabling tool – “getting to yes” or as a crutch – “not supported”? Why are your users still on Office 2003 or Windows XP at work when at home they’ve already conquered the Office 2007 (or 2010) ribbon on their own and are used to the Mac-like look of Windows 7? Not staying current on the desktop isn’t avoiding costs; it’s only delaying them. Giving your users tools they know are the best available and removing barriers to allow them to work as effectively as they can sounds pretty innovative to me.
It might even win a few supporters come next budget cycle.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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