Tapping into IT’s in-house entrepreneurs

Visionary CIOs say the fastest way to meet the demands of digital transformation is to empower IT employees to make decisions on their own.

hands work as a team managing business and technology gears and symbols to create innovation

The tech world is famous for producing entrepreneurs who turn startups into corporate empires while radically changing the way people work, play and interact.

But what if that entrepreneurial spirit wasn't channeled into building new businesses? Could it, instead, be used to shake up existing organizations?

Absolutely, says David A. Bray, senior executive and CIO at the Federal Communications Commission.

Dr. David A. Bray, senior executive and CIO, United States Federal Communications Commission [2015] FCC

David Bray, FCC

Bray arrived at the FCC in August 2013 as the 10th CIO in an eight-year span. He stepped into the role as the federal government was undergoing sequestration. He inherited an IT infrastructure with 207 different on-premises systems for an organization with just under 2,000 employees, and those systems were an average of 10 years old. Maintenance costs were consuming more than 85% of the IT budget, and that figure was expected to climb.

Tapping 'intrapreneurs'

Maintaining the status quo wasn't an option, Bray says. So he devised a strategy to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of certain key workers — people he dubs "intrapreneurs" or "entrepreneurs on the inside" — and challenged them to take charge of solving problems and spearhead projects that could propel the agency forward.

Bray embedded these intrapreneurs into the 17 FCC bureaus and offices, where they could learn the top challenges within those units and find ways to use technology to solve them. He gave them autonomy, allowing them to pursue ideas without seeking permission as long as they stayed within a set budget. He says each division has an annual allotment of $150,000 to spend on such ideas.

"They operate as entrepreneurs to work with the bureaus and the offices to understand their challenges and how IT could best be baked in to help them in their missions," Bray says, explaining that he expects these intrapreneurs to go beyond simply gathering requirements. "I say [to them] that success for you is getting stuff done."

In this age of digital transformation, visionary CIOs are looking for ways to innovate more quickly. To do that, some, like Bray, are tapping select staffers to lead the way, setting them in positions where they can identify areas for improvement as well as giving them more opportunities to brainstorm and more freedom to pursue their ideas.

"You might think it sounds crazy, but it gets results," Bray says. "They make things happen." (Bray explains his approach in more detail in this video.)

Bray cites a case in point: His in-house entrepreneurs worked with change agents (as Bray dubs some of the other workers in his organization) on how to upgrade the help desk. They outlined a project featuring software as a service that they completed for approximately $450,000 in about six months. Compare that to initial proposals for an on-premises application with custom code that was projected to cost $3.2 million and take an estimated 12 months to compete.

Bray's use of the term intrapreneur isn't unique. However, neither intrapreneur nor entrepreneur is universally used to describe employees who exhibit entrepreneurial characteristics. Other executives use more conventional terms like self-motivated or go-getter as they discuss the benefits of having such people on their teams. Whatever the terminology, though, CIOs who recognize the benefits of such traits are taking similar approaches to empowering entrepreneurial types.

Visionary activities

Darren Tedesco, managing principal of technology at Commonwealth Financial Network, says he carves out time — typically a couple of days annually — for IT staffers to "work on anything — to work on problems that they think they can solve and that help our company or our clients." He also has a mentoring program where senior leaders advise workers who are engaged in what he calls "visionary activities."

Darren Tedesco, managing principal of technology, Commonwealth Financial Network [2016] Commonwealth Financial Network

Darren Tedesco, Commonwealth Financial Network

"These are people who come to managers and say, 'I'm interested in doing other things.' So it's important to have formal programs in place to allow people to express their entrepreneurial spirit even if they're not doing it on a day-to-day basis," Tedesco says.

He also says he established a "decentralized system," because "if everything comes from the ivory tower, you can't have an entrepreneurial organization." He organized his IT department into a dozen or so teams that have a measure of freedom to pursue their ideas on how to develop the best products and services they can in their designated areas.

And he says the company rewards workers who go above and beyond with incentives such as yearly bonuses and recognition awards.

That's only right, Tedesco says, considering the ROI these people have generated. As an example, he says, earlier this year a member of the team working with Commonwealth's customer relationship management (CRM) system decided to build a tool to transport data sets that users found cumbersome to import into the system.

"It wasn't something he was asked to do. He did it on his own. He just had that drive. He just wanted to solve a problem," Tedesco says, adding that the worker had weekly and biweekly check-ins with his manager but otherwise had the creative freedom to develop a solution.

Granting entrepreneurial employees that kind of freedom is key to harnessing their energy, say Tedesco and others.

An innovation safety net

But advocates stress that CIOs must have controls in place, too. They can't just set employees free to chase whatever visions they have, regardless of cost or how those visions might square with the organization's strategic goals. Management needs to channel the drive these people exhibit into innovations that benefit the organization.

One way Tedesco does that is by using a risk spectrum that he devised to evaluate his teams' ideas. He tells workers to consider the worst-case scenario should a proposal fail. If failure would have no impact on the business, then they're OK to pursue their ideas on their own. If failure means catastrophe for the business, then they need to confer with senior management about their proposed plans before moving forward. Most projects will fall between those two extremes, of course, but Tedesco says his workers get the point.

"There's a lot you can do to foster an entrepreneurial spirit, but there are checks and balances you need to put in place so it's not a free-for-all," he says.

To make such intrapreneur programs work, CIOs say, you have to recognize which employees to target and understand how to manage them in their entrepreneurial endeavors.

"Entrepreneurs inside an organization are risk-takers, open to going against the grain, passionate, persistent, undeterred and comfortable with being uncomfortable. They are change agents and, most importantly, they have tenacity to get things done, whatever obstacles may stand in their way," says Gerry Lewis, interim senior vice president and CIO at Ascension, and CEO and chief data officer for Ascension Information Services.

Gerry Lewis quote

He says managers in his IT department informally seek "associates' ideas and extend them opportunities to share creative practices and approaches to operational and organizational issues and problems."

Leadership awareness

Although IT has no formal program supporting entrepreneurship within its ranks, Lewis says he encourages "developing the leadership awareness skills necessary to recognize, manage and incentivize associate contributions, but in ways different from how we already recognize associates via our existing performance management program."

"Our CIOs recognize these skill sets and regularly tap into the mindset of these intrapreneurs," he says. "Doing so, however, requires the right talent management tools and processes to identify valuable attributes, as well as the leadership insight to readily identify these entrepreneurial traits and position these associates with projects that will move the needle within our highly standardized and structured environment."

Bray has a similar take, saying: "We wanted someone who could see a problem, analyze it and find a solution." He says the intrapreneurs in his IT shop were FCC workers who in their previous roles demonstrated that they were good listeners and problem-solvers who were trying to create change. Bray says he recruited from within the IT department and other functional areas in the FCC.

Matching entrepreneurs with change agents

After the chosen employees took on their new roles as intrapreneurs (that is, indeed, the actual job title), Bray paired them with individuals whom he positioned as change agents.

"By pairing those two, those who understand the mission and context and the person who came in to do new development, that's where we hit a real sweet spot," he says.

Moreover, he says he set specific expectations, letting intrapreneurs know that they should identify the top five issues for the bureaus they serve and that they should be the first IT professional that bureau employees approach with issues and ideas.

Such reflections show that harnessing entrepreneurial workers does indeed require thought, effort and leadership. On the other hand, these are people who don't need any hand-holding.

Seeing challenges as opportunities

"These are people who, regardless of what they're doing, are looking and thinking, 'How can I go above and beyond? How can I go above the necessary requirements of the job or the situation or the project or the initiative and provide greater value and provide something that's new or that's different?'" says Joe Iannello, vice president and CIO at the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA) in Texas. "That's one aspect. Another is attitude. They look at every challenge as a potential opportunity."

Iannello says the CMTA, which is Austin's public transportation agency, has introduced a series of innovations in recent years and managers can easily spot entrepreneurial personalities.

Joe Iannello quote

Once the entrepreneurs are identified, managers are expected to support them so they can bring their ideas to fruition. Iannello says it's not about giving them more funding, per se. Rather, it's about giving them work that keeps them interested and challenged and going down the paths they proposed. From there, their own drive can take over.

"It's providing them with opportunities that directly hook into that spirit, so they're more likely to be assigned to the innovative or cutting-edge projects," Iannello says. "Then it becomes almost a self-propelled experience. It builds upon itself."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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