Time off to innovate: Good idea or a waste of tech talent?

Companies like Google and 3M give tech workers free time to follow their passions. Could it work for your organization?

By Howard Baldwin, Computerworld |  IT Management, innovation

At Consumers Energy, as part of its 20% program, one of the developers in its IT department put together a proof-of-concept for a mobile application that could be deployed to customers so they can report power outages and check restoration information from their mobile devices. It took just 12 weeks to execute. "We may have mismanaged expectations on the business side," jokes Chamarthi. "They wanted to know why we couldn't do all our projects like that."

There's nothing better you can do for the business than address a pain point. Mamatha Chamarthi, Consumers Energy

Currently in the pipeline is a geographical information system (GIS) application designed to run on mobile devices and replace the paper maps that designate locations of substations, pipelines and other utility assets. Field workers had to estimate exact locations of such assets, but the iPad application will contain geospatial capabilities that eliminate the guesswork.

"The developers spent time riding along with field technicians to observe how they did their work," says Chamarthi. "They went out in a middle of a storm to see what actually happened when the technicians had to fix something. When our team came up with the proof-of-concept for the GIS application, it bubbled up in priority real fast. There's nothing better you can do for the business than address a pain point."

Taking the plunge, with parameters

Allowing something as amorphous as time out to innovate may be anathema to some IT organizations, or their managers, but supporters say techies are uniquely suited to such programs. "Innovation and creativity are an important part of what any IT organization does every day," says Penn's Beck.

Dan Pink takes it one step further: "One reason that software development and IT work well in innovation programs is that the tasks that come out of them can be fairly discrete. There are always things that can be improved in software products, and components you can fix easily. Software is modular, and a lot of coding lends itself to individual heads-down work, or a team of two or three people. It's not like building a car, where you need massive amounts of physical space or equipment."

That said, ITO programs need guidelines. Consumers Energy has internal communications tools, such as Yammer, where employees can post ideas and form teams. Chamarthi and her staff meet weekly to review the ideas. If the business side likes it enough to fund it, it has to lessen the priority of another project. The underlying message to the IT team: 20% projects have to have some business value.


Originally published on Computerworld |  Click here to read the original story.
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