IT's New Goal: Empowerment, Not Ownership

Ann All

Earlier this month I wrote a post discussing the need for IT to shift its attitude toward business users who employ social technologies to help them do their jobs better. I advocated looking at them not as rogues to be shut down, but as HEROes-highly empowered and resourceful operatives-a term coined by Forrester Research analysts Ted Schadler and Josh Bernoff and used in their book "Empowered."


The key is a relationship in which IT and the business work as partners to identify which employee ideas are worth pursuing and ensure the appropriate technologies are used to make them safe, scalable and otherwise enterprise-ready. If that sounds like some unattainable ideal, it's not. InformationWeek just published an excerpt of Schadler's and Bernoff's book, which offers two real-world examples of how business and IT partnered on social projects to benefit the business.


At supplemental insurance company Aflac, CIO Gerald Shields took the lead to create two user communities, one for Aflac's independent sales associates and another for its online billing and payroll administrator customers. Shields educated his own direct reports and the company's North American president about the potential of online communities and worked with the chief marketing officer to present workshops on social technologies. The ideas for the communities came from folks who attended the workshops.


From the book:

If you're in IT, you could spend all your time running the core systems, locking down networks, and focusing on cutting costs just to return money to the bottom line. Or, like Gerald, you could do those things while keeping an eye on new technology and how it might be used to solve customer problems. You could become a key partner and advisor to customer-facing business functions. You could bring professional technology guidance to the HEROes throughout your company and watch innovation grow.

IT "won't necessarily own the technology," Sadler and Bernoff write, but "it certainly can help make it better." Letting go of that ownership is a problem for some IT organizations. But those who resist this idea for too long risk becoming marginalized or even eliminated, as I wrote last week, recapping a presentation by one of Schadler's and Bernoff's Forrester colleagues, VP and principal analyst James Staten, at last week's itSMF Fusion conference. Staten suggested IT organizations that want to work on projects that add clear business value must adopt a three-part strategy:

  • Employ "strategic rightsourcing" strategies.
  • "Industrialize IT" by automating as many IT services as possible.
  • Use agile methods borrowed from application developers to create a more flexible infrastructure.


Schadler and Bernoff also relate the story of Best Buy's Twelpforce, which uses an aggregation service built by a Best Buy Web strategist/architect to allow Best Buy retail employees and customer service representatives to field customer questions on Twitter. The service runs on Google's App Engine cloud servers and was initially created on Web strategist Ben Hedrington's own time. Hedrington worked closely on the project with a business team: CMO Barry Judge, Blue Shirt Nation cobuilder Gary Koelling and marketing staffer John Bernier.


The development process sounds similar to what Staten described in his presentation when discussing using agile methods, as I wrote:

Rather than working around legacy technologies, start with a clean slate, suggested Staten. Ask business users what they want and then ask yourselves, "Could I achieve this with Amazon EC2 or Google Apps" or other reusable components. Get Version 1.0 out as fast as you can, and don't be afraid to do a lot of tweaking. Business users would rather see quick results that require modification than wait a long time for perfection.

Hedrington worked on the service for a week, fitting in coding sessions after his work day was officially over. It took just another month to get the service off the ground after contract developers with Python programming skills were brought in.

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