The time is right for an 'IT petting zoo'

NASA's CTO of IT spends a lot of time playing with consumer toys, noting, 'the point is to be daring'

SAN FRANCISCO - Bringing consumer technology into the enterprise doesn't mean corporate data will be at risk or that money spent on failed projects was wasted. Just ask NASA, which regularly brings shiny toys into its "IT petting zoo" to play with and test, many of which have gone on to be venerated products.

Tom Soderstrom, CTO of IT at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, brings consumer tech into his shop to see if it will result in an increase in productivity and innovation.

"I'm often called chief toy officer ... and I'm proud of that title," Soderstrom told an audience at the CITE Conference and Expo here. "Ideas come from everywhere. Productize them and dare to fail. The ones that make sense go into pilot mode and then become products and typically last for years."

Soderstrom attends consumer tech shows such as CES to find new ideas to try at NASA. For example, Soderstrom gave engineers at NASA 3D printers to play with and they immediately began replicating just about everything in their offices with them.

Now the 3D printers are being used to created models of Mars landscapes as well as other astronomical objects that can be used for exploratory tests.

Another consumer technology NASA first played with in its IT petting zoo that was later adopted is wireless displays. They are now being used in employee offices and conference rooms.

Kevin Jones, consulting social and organizational strategist at NASA's Marshall and Goddard Space Flight Centers, said employees need to challenge established processes and take risks, even if they fail.

Jones pointed to technologies that employees would likely prefer over what their companies are offering them, but they aren't being rolled out because of stodgy mindsets.

For example, in 2010, NASA rolled out Spacebook, an internal version of Facebook for its employees. It was a failure, Jones said, but not because it wasn't a good idea.

There are two reasons Spacebook didn't work, Jones said. "First, the values of the solution and the values of the environment in which the solution is placed do not match," he said. "We can't expect to create a solution that is open and transparent, both bedrocks in the social enterprise, and put it in a militaristic command-and-control environment and think it's going to go well."

Secondly, new technologies are rejected because executives will often squelch new ideas by smothering them in rules. For example, managers who allow employees to work from home but only one day a week, never when they have meetings to attend and requiring them to write a report about how much more productive they were or weren't.

Also important to avoid in adopting consumer tech in the enterprise is "single loop learning", or throwing out the idea after only one try, Jones said.

"Single loop learning ... becomes process or policy or tradition or part of your culture. But that's no enough. What we need to do is double loop learning. Make a decision, act, and get a result that's not the one we want and then go back and challenge the assumption on which we made our decision," Jones said. "We need to challenge... maybe even something like the Qwerty keyboard."

The Dvorak keyboard, for example -- a keyboard that places vowels on the left and consonants on the right -- has been proven a more efficient design than Qwerty keyboards, Jones said, but established norms are adverse to change so it hasn't been adopted by corporations.

Soderstrom said one technology that he picked up from CES that paid off in spades is crowdsourcing.

"We developed an International Space Apps Challenge where consumers were allowed to build apps for science," Soderstrom said.

In its second year, the International Space Apps Challenge had more than 9,000 participants, compared with 2,000 the years before.

"Consumer-driven IT is real, affordable and fun. Work can be fun and should be fun. We need to attract the next generation of explorers," Soderstrom said. "The point is to be daring."

Consumer robotics and their mobile device controllers have also found their way into NASA. Soderstrom demonstrated an app developed via crowdsourcing that NASA adopted that allows an iPhone to control a remote vehicle or robot.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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