When it comes to corporate management and technology, I've long been a believer that many companies ignore one of their best resources: their employees. Particularly in enterprise IT, employees outside IT are often regarded as incapable "others" who present a hassle for IT rather than an opportunity. While this used to result in little more than poor relations between IT and other business units, with the rapid influx of consumer technology into the workplace, it's becoming dangerous. Workers ignore IT policy from what they perceive as the "department of ‘no'" and bring new devices and technologies into the workplace. Rather than treating this new trend as a disruption to be squashed, combine it with the concept of crowdsourcing to produce tangible benefits.
Crowdsourcing is the relatively recent concept of outsourcing some task to the public, allowing a largely anonymous group to do anything from completing market research to designing an entirely new product for a company for pay. The concept is simple in that it presumably attracts a wide and diverse body of content knowledge, taste, and passions that can be applied to a business problem. While your engineering department might be able to wield 50 talented minds, "the crowd" can provide tens of thousands, and also include people from outside disciplines. Like most disruptive innovations, crowdsourcing was touted as a solution to every problem and has since lost some of its luster, but the fundamental concept of seeking innovation outside of traditional internal silos is valid.
The tip of the sword
In many companies, employees are the tip of the tablet sword, bringing in personal devices and integrating them into their workflow without corporate sanction or support. I see an increasing number of tablet devices appearing in meetings at the various client sites I visit, and it's always interesting to speak with people who use them to find out how they've leveraged the device to improve productivity. In many cases, they're doing so without demanding broad access to internal resources. Many of these executives look at tablets as a modern equivalent of the old Day Planner; a portable device that lets them view their week on a large screen and update it in real-time is a godsend. Other people have far more interesting uses for these devices, from collaborating over documents to capturing and rapidly disseminating whiteboard brainstorming sessions. Some technically advanced people I've met have even coded rudimentary applications that send data to corporate spreadsheets or internal systems.
Just as many uses of crowdsourcing center around gathering market knowledge, the cadre of tablet-savvy users in your organization can provide firsthand detail on how tablets can be used in your current IT environment without any cost other than the time it takes to find and speak with these individuals. If you want to take this process to the next level, consider a "hackathon"-type concept, where a specific time period is allocated for anyone in the company to produce a service or product that can be leveraged by the entire company.
Traditionally, hackathons have been targeted directly at IT, developers in particular, but there's no gospel that says the concept can't be extended toward process, workflow, and application innovation rather than just writing code. Some of the best organizations promote these types of events widely across the organization and have generated marketable innovations and even new products, with many of the results coming from employees without any direct IT responsibilities.
There's also a strong PR-type benefit to tapping into employees for technology feedback, as this activity breaks down the stereotype of the monolithic, "department of ‘no'"-style IT organization, and it presents an entity that's willing to listen to employee concerns and implement tools to make people more productive. While it's not a very good idea to "employee source" your next enterprise software application, gathering use cases, integration ideas, and productivity tools is an excellent way to leverage a free resource: employees armed with tablets and developing creative ways to use them at your company.
Are you already doing this at your company? If not, what's holding you back? Share you experience in the discussion thread below.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.