How to empower your agency's heroes

The IT department could serve as the leading tech adviser to an agency while the cloud handles the dirty work

Ted Schadler is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and co-author with Josh Bernoff of a new Forrester book, “Empowered,” published by Harvard Business Press.

The IT department has long been organizations’ technology service provider. When a database needed to be built, the IT staff did it. When an employee needed to collaborate across organizational boundaries, the IT staff did the market review and chose a software tool. When a new operating system, mobile device or computer needed to be purchased and provisioned, the IT staff did the hard work.

All that has changed. Today, 37 percent of U.S. information workers are getting their own technology for work. They are solving their own problems, often without involvement or permission from the IT department.

A tremendous variety of technologies — mobile, social, video and cloud — are available to individual employees, often at very low prices. If you want to collaborate, you can use a cloud service such as Google Docs or If you want to securely share videos with other employees, you can host them on cloud provider Veodia. If you want to build a new application, you can run it on Amazon EC2 or Microsoft Azure. If you want to be productive on an overnight trip without lugging a laptop PC, you can bring your personal iPad.

And this trend toward readily available technologies that empower people is just getting started. There are two reasons why. First, such technologies show up first in the home. That means people learn about new technologies at home and then figure out how to apply them at work. Second, new applications are delivered via the Internet as cloud services, not as installed software. Even the iPhone applications that matter to business come with a cloud service.

This means that people can solve their own business problems without the IT department’s help. Sure, you can put up roadblocks and barriers, but with technology this readily available, some innovative employee or manager will just do it without you. Sometimes those applications have big implications.

In Forrester’s recent book, “Empowered,” we cited the example of Mark Betka, a program officer at the State Department who wanted to get positive messages about America to people all around the world. He came up with the idea of creating international teleconferences between prominent Americans and ordinary citizens in other countries. Unwilling to be stopped by a lack of funding, Betka found an unused license for Adobe Connect — an Internet-based service for meetings and videoconferences — and, working pretty much on his own, created a public diplomacy outreach project called CO.NX.

Among many other events, CO.NX hosted sessions that included a marketing expert in Hartford, Conn., training Iraqi widows on how to market their crafts internationally on the Web and thousands of people commenting live on President Barack Obama’s speech in Ghana. Betka used Facebook to promote the program. The CO.NX Facebook page now has 100,000 fans and lists several programs a week, some of which have audiences in the tens of thousands.

Let’s unpack this example. First, Betka and his colleague, Timothy Receveur, are able to host a global outreach program with technology that lives far outside the IT department’s control, though it is highly secure, able to support dozens of meetings and hundreds of participants, and available anywhere a broadband connection is found.

Second, the CO.NX project uses Facebook, not some solution provided by the organization to manage international public communications. Facebook has a global reach and costs nothing.

Third, Betka and Receveur don’t need the IT department’s permission to make this global program work (although they did work with the IT staff to get the original license). They are able to do it on their own.

In other words, technology is increasingly available to just about anybody in the organization, and often those technologies can be purchased with a credit card. No longer is the IT department the sole supplier of information solutions. Instead, individuals and cloud service providers can fill that role.

This is something that the Obama administration understands. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has been adamant that the government use cloud services whenever possible, and he even chartered, an online store for government-approved applications. In one high-profile example, the General Services Administration, under CIO Casey Coleman, has issued a request for proposals to have its entire e-mail system run in the cloud.

It begs the question: What is the role of the IT and CIO organization in an era in which cloud services are readily available and empowered employees can build their own technology solutions?

It could mean the importance of the IT department is fading, or it could signal something completely different: the rising importance of the IT department as a technology adviser to the organization. At Forrester, we think it spells opportunity for IT departments willing to engage with employees and business managers in new ways. IT leaders and employees have an opportunity to reinvent the role of the IT department to be a vital leader in driving the organization to higher levels of efficiency, productivity and success — and leave the drudgery of operating core applications to a cloud service provider.

The IT staff can and should be the technology expert in the room, as the group most qualified to identify the cloud service and consumer technologies that can best — and most securely — support the innovation and relentless improvements that companies and agencies demand.

But that enlightened IT department will require you to take a dramatically different approach to technology adoption. This is as true if you work for a government agency as it is if you work in the commercial sector. You can no longer corral the forces of technology adoption and be the department of No! We call this new approach the Hero Compact. Heroes are highly empowered and resourceful operatives — employees like Mark Betka — who see an opportunity to solve a new problem with readily available technology and marshal the resources to make it happen.

The Hero Compact is a new agreement between the IT staff, managers and employees to work differently to solve problems with technology. Each group has a clear set of new responsibilities.

  • The IT department is responsible for supporting Heroes with technology innovation, giving leaders the tools to manage risk and scaling up successful solutions.
  • Managers are responsible for making customer-focused innovation a priority, establishing the governance structures to support Heroes and working with IT to manage the business risk of technology.
  • Heroes are responsible for knowing what customers need, experimenting with technologies that solve customer problems, and operating within the safety principles established by the IT department and managers.

It’s not that radical a shift, and it’s probably happening informally in your organization already. But it will require courage to name the problem and demand a strategy in which every part of the organization thinks differently about the potential and risks of new technology.

The payoff is big. It makes your organization safer because you can anticipate and address any threat that might surface with consumer or cloud technology. And it makes the IT department a strategic technology adviser to the organization and the department of “Yes, and here’s how.” Lastly, it’s the best way to tap the innovation and problem-solving energy that’s bottled up inside your workforce — something every CIO should be striving for.

About the Author

Ted Schadler is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and co-author with Josh Bernoff of a new Forrester book, “Empowered,” published by Harvard Business Press.

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Reader comments

Fri, Nov 5, 2010

IT departments in many government offices have become time capsules from 1999. Microsoft office, e-mail, etc.

Wed, Nov 3, 2010 Linux Janitor Fderal Agency

As much as the IT department SHOULD be the technology expert in the room when projects are planned, we are usually only called in to clean up the messes, fix the problems that didn't quite work the way the Heroes, the Innovators, the People-who-don't-stick-around thought their great plans were supposed to work. We make them work, they get the credit.

Wed, Nov 3, 2010 Pat

So, what happens when you have three or four Mark Betka's in an agency. Each has their own vision of how the same project should be implemented and the same compulsion to "just make it happen". Since IT no longer matters, does every project just grow and flower on its own without regard for a central vision or coordination? Sounds more like technical anarchy with its attendant chaos, waste, and confusion than a workable and sustainable strategy.

Wed, Nov 3, 2010

We are trying to lock down our clients so that they can be dependant on us. If you have an employee and he is making mistakes then you reprimand him, not the entire department. If he or she does not get it then they need to look for another job. We are treating our employees like kids and they will find a different way of working around what you have built and it could be worse then if you would have gave them the rights to do what they needed.

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