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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'

June 5, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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, regularly 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.

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