Most managers first begin their management careers by being placed in charge of small groups doing small projects because they have demonstrated an early ability to lead. Beginning with a small group is an excellent starting point for new managers because they already know the details of the work they are now being asked to supervise.
But what happens after you complete your first management assignment, and you are then asked to take on a completely different type of leadership assignment—like researching a new technology to come up with a report and recommendations on what IT should do to digitalize documents and automate documentation for the entire company—and you've never done anything like this before?
Here are ten best practices that will help you with your R&D project:
Read the industry trade presses
There is an abundance of vendor and technology information in technology and business trade publications and websites. These publications and websites offer research, input from industry analysts, webinars, white papers and case studies. This is an excellent place to get started when you start your technology research.
Investigate technology solutions and talk to the vendors
You will be amazed at how much vendors will help with explanations and demonstrations of their products. They will also give you use case demonstrations of how their solutions are paying off for other companies. Not only will you learn about the mechanics of the technologies behind these solutions, but you will learn about the business values and paybacks that other companies are experiencing. As part of this process, you should also ask solutions providers to give you a list of clients you can talk with about how the solution is working for them, what the pros and cons are, and if they would recommend it.
Talk to people in IT and on the business side
At an early point in your project, make it a point to get out into IT and the end business to talk with IT specialists and key business users. On the IT side, it is important to know before you go too far what your system environment is. In other words, what types of systems, networks, platforms, etc., are you already running? In an ideal world, you will want to choose a technology that can easily integrate into this existing IT framework. On the business side, let's say that you are investigating a document digitalization and management system. Who will be the primary users? What paperwork headaches are they facing on a daily basis that they would like to solve?
Figure out where the business value is
From your discussion with business users, your goal should be to determine where the greatest business value of the technology is going to be. Will the greatest value be in digitizing and automating paperwork workflows so finance can do the monthly close in half the time? Or will automating documents enable design and manufacturing engineers to collaborate on products and share documentation readily so R&D time can be cut and products can be sped to market?
Understand how the investment can be paid back
What we know from IT projects that have been done through the years is that soft costs, like reducing the payroll processing cycle, or enabling your staff to work on new projects because of automation, doesn't impress decision makers. These people won't be impressed if your technology recommendation is all about soft costs, either. If you need to invest x number of dollars into a technology, it is important for your research to show what the company can expect to see in the form of real dollar savings or projected revenue improvements.This is what is commonly known as an ROI (return on investment). Companies often have difficulty developing these ROIs. Developing an ROI is where prospective vendors can help. Many have ROI formulation software that can predict the likely dollar savings or revenue increases your company will gain by using their product.
Look for an open and flexible solution
Any technology you recommend should easily integrate with your existing systems, and should be easy to install, use and maintain. If it isn't, it is probably a choice you won't want to pursue. Secondly, the solution should be open in the sense that you don't want to feel locked into any one vendor should the company choose to pursue another technology direction in the future. This means that the solution must be as easy to remove or replace as it is to install.
Ask for help when you need it
If you're working your first project on your own, you might feel like you have to get off to a strong start and demonstrate self-reliance. But since there's also a lot to learn when you are exploring a new technology, don't be reluctant to approach a seasoned IT'er or an expert in a business department if you have questions. Most are willing to help and may even become advocates and supporters of your project!
Keep supervisors informed—but not too much!
In a research effort, you are deep-diving into a new technology and much of your activity will be solitary in nature. Because of the solitary nature of the project, you don't want to lose sight of keeping your supervisor regularly informed of progress. At the same time, you don't want to be communicating too often because your superior is depending on you to get the job done and to take this project off of his or her plate. Most technology researchers find that a weekly report is the right balance between over- and under-communicating.
Complete the project on time
A technology research project, like more traditional IT projects, should always be completed on time. If here are unforeseen delays, you should give your superior an immediate "heads up" and explain why the delay will occur.
Arrange for a demo
A great way to cap off a thorough and comprehensive technology investigation and recommendation is to arrange for one or several potential vendors you are recommending to come in and give an actual demo of the technology to IT and the end business community. This makes your report come alive. It also helps others who haven't been involved in your project understand how the technology works and how it can benefit the company.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.