Chapter excerpt: Employee empowerment through technology innovation

In this except from their book Empowered, authors Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler offer a prescription for employee empowerment through technology innovation and the role IT plays.

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Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers and Transform Your Business

The following is an excerpt from the book Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers and Transform Your Business (Harvard Business Review Press; copyright 2010, Forrester Research Inc.) by Josh Bernoff, co-author of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies and senior vice president for idea development at Forrester Research Inc.; and Ted Schadler, vice president and principal analyst in Forrester's IT Research Group.

In a HERO (Highly Empowered and Resourceful Operative) powered business, empowered employees are a continuous force for innovation in service of customers. But it takes three groups working together to make this customer-focused innovation possible and safe: IT, managers and the HEROes themselves.

It's not easy for them all to get along. When they do, it's because they each understand what they're uniquely responsible for and how they work together. We call this new way of thinking the HERO Compact.

IT's role in the HERO Compact

Let's start with IT departments and their responsibilities for technology. In the past, IT mostly had two jobs. The first was to build and support big technology projects -- corporate databases, core business applications like accounting systems, network infrastructure, servers and PCs for the information workers in companies. The second was to make sure any systems that these workers used were safe and that they kept data secure and functioned properly.

HEROes threaten both of these jobs.

HEROes are do-it-yourselfers. They pick technologies that often aren't sanctioned by corporate IT. Why is this happening?

For one thing, they are exposed as consumers to powerful mobile, video, cloud and social technologies. They see Facebook and ask, "Why can't we do an employee social network?" They make videos of their kids and say, "I could make training videos." They collaborate in their spare time with fellow volunteers on Google Docs, and wonder if their company could use them. Because most of these tools are free or cheap, and easy to use, many of your information workers are mastering them right now.

We call this trend "technology populism." Researchers at Computer Sciences Corp. have called it the "consumerization of information technology." But whatever you call it, it means that new technologies are creeping into every workplace. Even if the PCs are locked down, personal mobile devices that browse the Web aren't -- so people end up using their own technologies at work all the time.

The second reason that HEROes use do-it-yourself technology solutions is that they live with empowered customers. Whether they're in marketing, sales or customer support, they are typically directly in touch with customers and their problems and desires. It's just too tempting to solve the problems right then and there with technologies that are readily accessible. Whether it's an account manager prospecting on LinkedIn or Gary Koelling putting a server under his desk, technology solutions created by HEROes spread throughout the organization.

What should an IT department do? They can't run these projects; they are too small and there are too many of them. They can't outlaw all of them either -- that's cutting off a huge source of customer-focused innovation. But for an IT professional, employees using do-it-yourself technology feels like a virus invading the body -- it's alien. IT’s natural reaction is to say no, or at least whoa. After all, it is the CIO and IT group's responsibility to scale and secure the technology the company runs on, and stay on the right side of the law. If they don't have a part in selecting and deploying the tool, they get very nervous.

IT needs to take on a new role, as a key adviser to HEROes and their managers.

First of all, it's IT's job to help HEROes pick the right technologies. In the Best Buy example at the start of this chapter, IT helped make the transition to the right platform for Best Buy's internal sharing software. [Editor's Note: In Empowered, Bernoff and Schadler write about Blue Shirt Nation, an internal community platform rolled out by Richfield, Minn.-based Best Buy Co. Inc. that failed to take off because the platform it chose didn't reach managers. To address the problem, the consumer electronics retailer's IT department combined Microsoft SharePoint technology with some custom software to reach a greater cross-section of employees. The lessons learned from Blue Shirt Nation also led to Twelpforce, an enormously successful social initiative that empowered staff to provide customer service on Twitter.]

In the next chapter, you're going to see how the CIO at PTC[Parametric Technology Corp.], a software company, helped marketing staffers pick the right platform for an online community. More and more, supporting technology innovation as a trusted counselor will become the IT manager's role.

IT needs to take on a new role, as a key adviser to HEROes and their managers.

Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, Empowered co-authors

IT also must help manage technology risk. Take iPhones. One IT manager at a global insurance company described it to us this way: "I know I'm going to have to support the iPhone. Everybody is asking for it. Even my CEO wants to know when I'm going to let him use his iPhone. But my problem with iPhone right now [in April 2009] is that I can't yet stand up in front of a judge and explain how it meets our compliance requirements. And that's part of my job." While IT cannot eliminate risk, it is the IT group's role to assess and mitigate risks that come from HERO projects.

IT must also scale up the HERO solutions that work. This is where IT's traditional role intersects HERO initiatives most directly. Finally, IT must be involved with corporate systems designed to improve employee innovation and collaboration.

In the new world, IT is a driver, protector and supporter of HERO-powered technology projects. This requires a change in mind-set. We've assembled the elements of this change into a short document called IT's Pledge in the HERO Compact:

• I will focus more on customer-facing opportunities, in addition to systems, risks and operations.

• I will respect requests for new technology support and find ways to say, "Yes, and" rather than automatically saying, "No."

• I will explain the reasons for locking down new technologies, and immediately begin looking for ways to unlock them. I will reexamine decisions to lock down new technologies at least once a year.

• I will focus on technology innovation as a core skill so I can counsel HEROes when they come with technology ideas.

• I will question the default assumption that people using do-it-yourself technology are creating risks or wasting time.

• As new HERO projects get off the ground, I will seek ways to help HEROes and their managers scale them up successfully and keep them safe.

• I will focus on training people about risks at least as much as [about] implementing lockdown technology solutions.

• I will help with the development of corporate systems to promote innovation and collaboration.

Read more about employee empowerment and how technology innovation is transforming the way corporations do business in this introduction by authors Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler.

This was first published in September 2010

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