When IT Gets to Play

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

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Yet Smoley is quick to point out that a skunk works or a culture of innovation does not imply or encourage random experimentation, especially during tight economic times.

"We're not just in the business of coming up with cool stuff, but [rather] coming up with cool stuff to improve security, better customer service and solve other problems," he says. "Innovating with random technologies in an IT department might yield something [of business value], but chances are it won't. There's a method to the madness. What I want to do is encourage my guys to innovate around those areas they're responsible for."

Smoley is also a firm believer that proximity to a problem plus a tight economy and constrained resources work to create a climate of increased innovation.

"Some of the most innovative solutions come from [IT personnel] in the field or factories where they have the dual benefit of being severely constrained and toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye with our end customers," Smoley says. "Those are the guys who have customer service, sales and quality folks in their factories telling them their requirements. As they solve their problems, we troll their websites and look for unique opportunities to spread best practices.

"We also try to take advantage of our lack of resources by encouraging everyone to be innovative," he says. For example, a team in IT built an open-source network monitoring tool that Flextronics now uses globally. That tool was developed after officials rejected IT's recommendation that the company buy a multimillion-dollar, commercial network monitoring system.

"The response was, 'We just don't have the money,' " Smoley recalls. "But now, we have this [open-source] tool that has literally saved us $10 million."

At JetBlue Airways, CTO Terry Dinterman says skunk works are typically set up to tackle very specific business issues.

For example, the airline set up a skunk works of sorts in direct response to a competitive business need for onboard Internet connectivity for passengers.

"Connectivity into the aircraft is a key business driver, and there was a need to get ahead of the industry," Dinterman explains. "So we had a dedicated team from business and technology who were set aside to do some investigation."

Currently, the airline has a small team known as Crew Member Technology Services that is dedicated to "scanning the technology horizon and dabbling with anything out there" in the area of virtualization and thin client technology, says Dinterman. "By moving to a pure thin client and virtualizing our desktops, we expect the cost of supporting customers to be cut by one-third," he says. This same group is also investigating the business value of tablets and various "bring your own device" scenarios.

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