Could we engage employees and “customers” in IT strategy development?

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I spent yesterday at CSIA’s DEMOGala conference. Before I get on to the topic at hand, I want to congratulate CSIA for another amazing event! I have attended the last four years and it just keeps getting better. We had over 900 attendees this year and a full day of interesting topics, in addition to the DEMO showcase. I attended panels on media deconstruction and reconstruction, controlling the world’s information, open source, social networking, and more. At the showcase, I got to sing AC/DCs “Should I stay or Should I Go” to Rockband after playing with a touch screen table top at the EffectiveUI demo. And of course I always love seeing the students at the ColoradoFirst robotics competition – they had their robot chasing me around.

The conference gave me lots of ideas, but one that has stuck with me was launched by one of the afternoon topics entitled “Using the Web to Find Inventors and Facilitate the Creative Process”. This is a hot topic right now: basically it is how to get your customers to weigh in on ideas and actually gain ideas from your customers. I think companies are trying this out for a variety of reasons, partly because they realize the potential of harnessing their customers’ insights, partly because they are scared about where their customers will take their ideas (or worse, complaints) if they don’t proactively seek them out.

On several occasions, the moderator cited Rally, a local software company, as a great example of a company that incorporates customer input into the innovation process. They share their product roadmap with their customers and gain feedback on it iteratively. Whenever I hear examples like that, I always love the idea and think about how my customers, who tend to be internal IT organizations, could apply the practice. What I’ve seen to date is that IT leadership tends to develop their strategy without a lot of input from employees or “customers” (i.e. their internal business partners). The customers are sometimes interviewed or included in a facilitated prioritization session, but they are not truly integrated into the planning. Employees are usually completely isolated from any strategic planning exercises.

During a break, I walked down the street to purchase some tickets to the symphony. There’s a guy there who always helps me get great seats, and I struck up a conversation with him about how things were going with the economy. He gave me the “party line” with a knowing smile, but then he let a little sigh and said he had a lot of ideas for what to do, but he’s not the one in charge. I wonder how many employees feel like him? Many of my clients prefer to do strategic planning secretly. A team I worked with a couple of years ago revolted at the idea of a suggestion box. There are clearly barriers out there to opening up the process.

So I continued to wonder throughout the day if it would be possible to get management teams to iteratively incorporate the ideas of their employees during the development of their strategies. I do realize there are clear implications to this that would need to be worked through. Unrealistic expectations could be set or employees could become unduly concerned about an idea that is not yet a reality (e.g. what if outsourcing were a strategic objective). But from what I’ve seen, employees get more upset about not knowing anything. Another issue could be that the information shared might be sensitive to the outside world (e.g. an employee could send a vendor a tip that IT is looking at some initiative or some product and give them a leg up). This already happens, though. Another issue could be that the business executives who are served by the IT organization might think they should see and approve the strategy before any of it is shared with the employees. This is a real issue, but it could be dealt with by including them in the process as well.

Yes, there are clearly some implications that would need to be worked through, but there are also great benefits to be realized. Not only would you get a better strategy, you’d have a huge leg up on the change management and communication needs around it. You’d have a huge start on the execution of it with awareness and engagement built into the process.

Thoughts?

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