When IT Gets to Play

Give your tech teams the resources to test new ideas, and big business value will follow.

It's called the technology petting zoo. Stocked with the latest high-tech gadgets, games, systems and software that could potentially be of business value, it's a place where engineers and other IT users at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory can try out the steady stream of hot, new consumer technologies and imagine the possibilities.

"We can afford to buy at least one of everything that looks like it might have business value. The petting zoo is where they can test it," explains Tom Soderstrom, CTO at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"We also have a social networking site where they rate what they try. It works to create a kind of technology pull, rather than push, and creates a desire among users to work with IT. A big benefit is that users no longer have to be in the shadows and hide what they're trying from the IT security police."

At Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc., CIO Rob Petrie has set up his own version of a tech petting zoo -- or skunk works, as such initiatives are often called. The PPD's version is called the innovation group, and it's comprised of a rotating team of IT staffers who come from diverse backgrounds and are taken out of their regular jobs to spend six months experimenting with various technologies. Their goal is to discover ways that new technologies could be applied to deliver business at PPD.

"We always have at least five or six things in motion in the group," says Petrie. "Bringing different people through and then returning them to IT is a way to cross-pollinate ideas. It spreads innovation."

Its name may vary, but there's little doubt about it: the IT skunk works is making a comeback -- not so much as a place to allow experimental projects to flourish, away from the stifling corporate bureaucracy, but as an indispensable tool to breed innovation, learn about risk, build employee loyalty, conduct pilot projects and educate technical and nontechnical staffers in a time of rapid-fire technology change.

Some skunk works are formal operations set up as proving grounds for technologies being considered for use on a wider basis. Others are more clandestine. Funded with small amounts of money from other parts of the IT budget, these skunk works operate under the corporate radar and are used, among other purposes, to attract and engage bright and eager young professionals who have little patience with big honking enterprise systems.

"I tend to use the skunk works for things that are way out there," says the CIO of a global consumer products company. "It keeps my technology team engaged."

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