Jason Palmer has some straightforward advice for IT executives who are looking to get more value from technology: Be a contrarian.
"Always challenge what you think will work; always challenge what you have done," said Palmer, president of SmartDrive Systems, at the Computerworld Honors Program awards gala at the Andrew W. Mellon auditorium in Washington earlier this month. "This allows you to think outside the box and identify opportunities that you wouldn't have expected."
SmartDrive Systems, a provider of fuel management and driver safety services to motor vehicle fleet operators, was one of dozens of organizations recognized for using information technologies in innovative ways to promote public welfare.
Organizations that received 21st Century Achievement Awards, the program's highest honor, included DataDyne, for developing a free data collection tool for nonprofit and humanitarian organizations; Curriki, for creating an online community that provides free educational materials to students and educators around the world; OhioHealth, for a mobile application that delivers real-time healthcare information via smartphones; and the Pennsylvania Justice Network, for developing an innovative facial recognition tool for use in law enforcement.
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman received the Honors Program's Morgan Stanley Leadership Award for Global Commerce. In remarks to attendees, he stressed the importance of entrepreneurial thinking in a fast-changing world. Companies looking to create jobs and make a difference in society increasingly need to think and behave like entrepreneurs -- and that means they need to take risks, he said.
That advice resonated with several IT executives and other attendees.
"Over 20 years and six separate startups, I have found that it is critical that you look at changing market dynamics and at how current processes can be improved with technology," Palmer said.
Shyam Desigan, the chief financial officer at Volunteers of America Chesapeake, said taking innovative and entrepreneurial risks has been important for the nonprofit charity during challenging economic times.
The organization was recognized at the Honors Program ceremony for building a predictive analytics tool to help identify new service opportunities.
"The only way for organizations to survive and thrive is be innovative and entrepreneurial," Desigan said. "When people say 'no' or 'can't be done on this budget,' I look [for creative solutions like] leveraging cloud computing and open source to drive incremental change."
Alluding to an old IT adage, Desigan noted that it was once believed that CIOs would never get fired for buying products and services from high-tech giants like IBM or Cisco. But times are changing, he said, because "CFOs like myself are increasingly looking for value."
Lou August, global co-leader of technology development at World Vision International, said that a lot of the work done by the charitable organization is entrepreneurial in nature, whether it involves creating new technology-enabled programs or building technology-enabled social ventures.
World Vision was recognized for developing an innovative mobile tool designed to track aid distribution.
"As the founder and owner of a technology company for 20 years, I believe entrepreneurial skills are essential for an IT leader," August said.
IT leaders must also be willing to take risks, even ones that could put their careers on the line. "This willingness is tied to one's passion," said August. "Achieving a vision one is passionate about is always more valuable than one's career itself."
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.