By Straight Talk Editors

[Read Part 1]

3. Cut time spent "keeping the lights on"

How do you make time for experimentation?  As the pointy-haired boss in a Dilbert cartoon tells his team, “If you come up with a good idea, I’ll let you take on the project in addition to your existing work.” But according to the CIOs we talked to, it is possible to find ways to channel the energies of IT staff beyond day-to-day work. One approach is to take a close look at routine and time-consuming tasks. Ed Jurica notes that his organization set a goal of reducing by 10% the time and effort it would devote to production support, thereby freeing up 15 FTEs for work that could generate more business value. “If it’s a tedious task that has to be done over and over again,” he says, “perhaps a small investment in a tool or developing a utility in-house could alleviate the time spent on it.”

Issac Sacolick has also found ways to separate ongoing support from experimental and innovative development work, directing a lot of routine maintenance work to outsourcing partners. In addition to using “spikes,” discussed above, he dedicates small groups for four to eight weeks to larger experimental projects. “I make these opportunities very transparent,” he says, “creating in the process a culture of innovation. I make it transparent because you don’t know who is going to respond to it in your group and because you want to use the opportunity to find business sponsors who want to get involved.”

4. Adopt a few digital natives

Once you make time for experimentation and innovation, what are some of the sources of new ideas? It may be worthwhile to think about this in demo- graphic terms. Here are some fairly well known statistics: The median age at Google is 29; at Facebook, it’s 28. These companies are leading indicators for the changing face of the global workforce over the next decade. In the U.S., where the overall median age of workers is 42.3, there are an estimated 80 million young Americans who belong to the so-called millennial generation, roughly ages 18 to 35. By next year, millennials are expected to constitute 36% of the U.S. workforce, and by 2020, they will account for nearly half of all workers.

Scott Blanchette has seen this demographic shift in action: “A big percentage of our workforce, especially the clinical workforce — nurses and doctors — are very young. They are not technologists, but they have a tremendous portfolio of technical competencies that we want to tap into, because they are always finding new ways to solve old problems.”

Many CIOs are not targeting young professionals who were “baptized in technology,” Blanchette notes, in large part because of structured R&D approaches, which are hierarchical in nature. “But we spend a lot of our time and effort tapping into the power of the base of the pyramid.”

In addition to offering innovative ideas on to use IT to achieve business goals, digital natives also help change the way IT does its work, especially in the area of training and documentation. Ed Jurica observes that digital natives, who grew up immersed in Nintendo and PlayStation, approach learning in an entirely new way. “There are no instruction manuals, there is no ‘take a class,’” he observes. “It’s all emergent: ‘Give me the environment and let me play. If I have questions, I will open up three different chat tools and I will pull other people in to look for FAQs and shortcuts. I will learn by doing.’” Consequently, the training materials these professionals like to consume are more like games, allowing users to experiment and play with the technology.

In addition to doing the obvious to engage digital natives — reaching out through social media — you may want to appoint a member of your management team to be the “digital natives czar,” responsible for soliciting innovative ideas from 20-something employees throughout the enterprise and addressing their specific IT needs and requirements. That czar could also create a “digital natives council” with representatives from various departments and functions who meet on a regular basis to provide input to IT.

5. Hire some business-savvy seniors

Young people are not the only source of new ideas and fresh perspectives. Experienced professionals can change the dynamics of any team, increasing its creativity through a diversity of views based on deep knowledge and extensive experience and serving as mentors to senior executives. As one of Stephen Thurlbeck’s senior people told him, “I’m going to hire someone who is better than me. I love to mentor my people — but who’s mentoring me?”

“Our senior people are looking for people who have different experience,” Thurlbeck says. But “different experience” means not just experience with technology. “My preferred job description right now is ‘We are looking for a .net artisan who will be missed by both their technology and business colleagues when they leave their current employer,’” he says.

Business savvy is a top hiring criterion for Ann Alrich. “If I could have ten people on my team who know everything there is to know about IT or ten people who understand various aspects of the business, I would take the business people any day,” she says. “You can buy the technology and the knowledge of the technology, but the ability to connect with the business and have a business- level conversation is absolutely crucial. When I interview people I always look for the softer skills — I try to find out whether they have a customer focus, if they care about the fact that this is a business we are running. What we do is not just technology for technology’s sake; it is applied technology.”

The business experience does not have to be industry-specific. Observes Alrich: “IT skills are transferrable from one industry to another. I’ve seen people tremendously successful in an area where they have never worked before, because they were willing to adapt and they had a well-rounded skill set, including soft skills.”

Stephen Thurlbeck agrees. “It doesn’t matter to me if you are in our industry,” he says. “A smart person who cares and wants to make a difference is worth ten industry insiders.” Alexandre Kozlov knows this from experience, having been hired at Norsk Hydro after a long tenure as a CIO in the consumer goods industry. “Fortunately, the executives who interviewed me saw that my lack of immediate hands-on experience in the aluminum industry was not a showstopper in my case. There are several important leadership skills — for example, how you position IT in relation to the business — that can be easily ported from one industry to another.”

[Read Part 3]

Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 4 (December 2013)