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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"Pretty much all this group does is try to experiment to make things work and think through the policies and support models and all of the other issues associated with new technologies," he says.

Dinterman says a separate skunk-works-type group is needed, especially when a company is in growth mode like JetBlue.

"We try to be very lean, so asking anyone with an operational, day-to-day initiative to spend a portion of their time dabbling in experimental activities is too much. The pressure of keeping the environment up and running is difficult and unpredictable enough," he says.

Funding a Skunk Works

For the most part, formal budgets seem to have no place in a skunk works. Instead, most CIOs describe scenarios in which they artfully move money around to fund experiments with technologies that show great promise for delivering business value.

Last year, for example, an IT manager approached Paul Major, managing director of IT at Aspen Skiing Co., with an idea for streamlining an especially labor-intensive and manual process of redeeming vouchers for ski classes with instructors.

"I asked him what he thought he needed and he told me a few hundred dollars for a scanner to see if the idea would work," Major recalls. "The end result is that this year, after a season of experimentation, we're going to roll out a brand-new program that will revolutionize the way we do ski lessons and the way that instructors get scheduled and paid."

As for the budget, he says, "we always have a few line items we could poke a few thousand dollars in without generating too much scrutiny from the finance team. We always will have a way to get [would-be experimenters] $1,000 and allow them to go play with duct tape and sawdust and try it out without wreaking havoc and see what works," he jokes.

"For us, skunk works is more of a mentality than a process. It doesn't matter if you have $100 or $100,000; it's about giving people resources to try things and see what happens," says Major.

Looking ahead, many CIOs foresee even greater activity in skunk works where they already exist and the creation of new skunk-works-type activities where there are none currently. The reason is directly tied to the rapid pace of technology change.

"There will be much more pressure to do this kind of thing," says the CIO at the consumer products company. "Companies want better, faster, cheaper, but IT doesn't know how to do that unless they try things out."

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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