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?

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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."

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.

At Quicken Loans, He put in place a virtual team of eight employees to track ideas originated from BulletTime and dedicated one person to facilitate the program. At Atlassian, employees have to obtain sponsorship from three other engineers and then submit a proposal to one of the founders for approval.

Once the parameters are set, CIOs advise patience when it comes to implementing such programs. Quicken Loans' He says, "You have to set the expectations that this is an experiment, and it may change along the way. You also have to build flexibility in. Too often, technology leaders want to build a perfect solution from day one," He says, emphasizing that outcomes from programs like these don't have to be perfect.

Finally, warns Beck, if innovation and creativity are not part of your existing culture, you're not going to infuse it in one day. "It has to be something you encourage on a consistent basis. Be patient. You're planting seeds, and it can take time for ideas to germinate."

Silicon Valley-based freelancer Howard Baldwin last wrote for Computerworld about the corporate cloud showdown between IT and legal.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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