December 30, 2008, 3:29 PM — Some of the best ideas come out of what seems like left field.
Consider the phlebotomist at Sonora Quest Laboratories LLC who came up with an automated way to securely download patient billing information from hundreds of physicians' offices.
And if you're wearing invisible braces, you can thank two Stanford University MBA students, not an orthodontist, for designing them.
At Accenture, it was a project team's consumer packaged goods expert who figured out how one client -- a financial services company -- could best cross-sell products and services to its customers.
"Every project team we build has an entire spectrum of age and experience represented," says Accenture managing director Gary Curtis, who leads the company's 8,500-person technology consulting organization. The reason, he says, is simple: "Diversity guarantees the best project result and usually some layer of innovation."
The idea of populating a creative team with people from diverse disciplines isn't entirely new (Read how Computerworld's 2008 Best Places to Work in IT build diverse work teams). What is new and different is both the range and depth of team diversity required to succeed in an increasingly global economy and a world in which technology is advancing at warp speed.
Inventor extraordinaire Thomas Alva Edison is said to have hired experts from the railroad and telegraph industries and mixed them together with mechanical and chemical engineers at his laboratories in New Jersey and Florida in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When one of the experts couldn't solve a problem in his specialty area, Edison would assign it to another expert from a different discipline with an altogether different point of view.
"You need people who can see things differently and not get trapped in their own disciplinary assumptions," says Robert I. Sutton, a Stanford University engineering professor who specializes and teaches courses in organizational psychology, innovation and organizational behavior. "People from different disciplines will have different points of view."
But it's not just disciplinary diversity that's needed. The most successful project teams also represent a diversity of ages, cultural backgrounds and technology experience. Younger employees, or "millennials," for example, come to the workplace with "a whole different life experience, especially with regard to technology in their personal lives," says Curtis.
More specifically, he says, "they have an expectation of what technology should do to help make your life easier. For example, they'll think about a mobility solution even if the client might present what they think is a Web-based problem. They offer a perspective that leads to a broader solution, so mobility tends to get built into whatever they're working on."
As a Six Sigma company, Sonora Quest is no stranger to pulling together diverse project teams. "We have young guys coming in and asking, 'Why are you doing something like that?' " says CIO Bob Dowd.
Still, Dowd says the inclusion of millennials and their interaction with workers from the baby boom generation never fails to produce an unanticipated result.
One recent example came during the implementation of new IT help desk software. "It was an IT project, and we didn't know how we were going to use the software in other aspects of the business," Dowd explains. "But it was one of our young salespeople who came up with the idea of using the IT services catalog application for new services that sales is providing in the field. Sales used to have to [file paper reports], and it could take a week to get information distributed. Now, it is instantly in the system and distributed."
Experts also say gender diversity on project teams is equally, if not more, important. It's an area in which IT has historically scored low marks and clearly has a lot of work to do.
"The computer industry is dominated by white males and Indians and Asian males. It's not an industry that is really good with women," notes Sutton.
Curtis agrees. "There's an overwhelming majority of males, because that's what the universities are producing," he says. But all-male project teams are far from ideal when it comes to innovating and incorporating a wide breadth of ideas, he says.
"A team of all men is generally going to work in a hierarchical way. If it's a big team, men are more comfortable taking their part of the problem and going off and solving it," Curtis says.
In comparison, a team of women tends to work in a more communal way, he says. "They talk to each other about problems, and they'll help each other out. In project environments, women reach out better to the outside world," says Curtis.
While the rewards of project team diversity seem clear, the management challenges and pitfalls are often less obvious and can vary widely depending on the company, the degree of diversification and the processes in place for managing projects, experts say.
Consider the team made up of millennials and baby boomers. "Millennials don't think about authority the same way as older workers," notes Curtis. "You can't tell them to do this or to do that. You have to win their hearts and minds. You have to educate them on what's important."
Accenture recently surveyed more than 400 millennials ranging in age from 14 to 27 and found that a majority of 18-to-22-year-old workers see no need to get corporate approval for the technologies they use in the course of their work. They regularly download nonstandard technology from free public Web sites, including open-source communities and mashup and widget providers.
At Sonora Quest, Dowd says the arrival of millennial workers has often challenged, and in some cases changed, the way the company's project teams communicate.
"They're much more into texting and IM'ing, whereas some of our older people are used to talking things through and e-mailing. Seasoned people want to go through projects more methodically, whereas the younger guys want to try this or try that without all of the facts."
But more rules aren't the answer, Dowd says. Rather, the key is to begin the slow process of educating everyone about the value each member brings to the team.
California's Office of the State CIO is hoping to attract a more diverse IT workforce, notably younger professionals with Web 2.0 skills, by changing both its mobile work and recruiting practices, according to Chief Deputy Director Christy Quinlan.
"The younger generation is used to working more independently. They're used to going to places like bookstores or Starbucks or to libraries and working there. They might work a couple of hours, run to the gym, come back to work [and] then work till 11 o'clock at night. They're used to setting their own work hours," she says.
In response, the CIO's office has adopted a more flexible approach to work hours. "The reality is we're not really worried about it," Quinlan says. "We have respect for these workers and a confidence that is based on their track record of producing."
Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., a global technical services firm based in Pasadena, Calif., is managing for diversity at the executive level by collecting metrics from every regional vice president on how well women and minorities are represented on project teams.
"Diversity is part of our monthly reports and is also considered for bonuses," says CIO Cora Carmody. This is because "diversity absolutely fosters innovation. What gets measured gets improved, so we're constantly looking at diversity metrics and thinking of ways to improve and innovate."