How to respond to customer needs for innovative tools

I’ve bleated on in the past about the virtues of experimenting outside the confines of the corporate hosting infrastructure – both to protect the core web services and to pilot new tools and ideas. As organisational online requirements increasingly extend beyond the corporate domain, its essential that new ideas are developed, channels investigated and knowledge and skillsets built up.

There’s been some debate in the blogosphere over the last few days about the difficulties of experimentation and innovation in corporate environments – pointing out the inability of corporate IT functions to respond to user needs through a combination risk averseness and bureauocracy amongst other things.

The debate seems to have been kicked off over at the 37 Signals blog. If you don’t know who 37 Signals are, they are worth investigating because they build online business tools (project management, CRM, billing etc) for small businesses. They’re particularly popular with US web companies for their ease of use and flexibility.

Dave Winer and Jeremiah Owyang both chipped in with their respective takes on the reasons users in large organisations bypass IT and embrace some of these tools, and how IT departments need to respond.

I couldn’t sympathise more. I was recently consulting for a customer who essentially required a small intranet for a geographically disparate group of users that don’t have access to the GSI (the government secure intranet). To provide them with that access would be prohibitively expensive – they’d never be able to justify it on a cost basis – so building content on our intranet was out. A bespoke extranet was also out, just too expensive to build for such a small group of users when the security requirements were introduced into the mix.

But something like 37 Signals’ Basecamp costs peanuts in comparison to set up and provides all the functionality they need – document sharing., project tracking, collaborative document working and even live web chatting. For $50 a month we can set up a number of these group work spaces with industry standard encryption and minimal set up or ongoing intervention required by the web team.

There are some issues that need resolving before you can use these kinds of tools, such as data security and how you can extract / export data for the corporate record. Equally, you may find that your corporate firewall prevents you from accessing some or all of the functionality. But that’s the whole point of experimentation, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t.

These issues are in no way insurmountable though. I can certainly recommend Basecamp and similar products (such as central desktop) as a low cost and effective way of deploying collaborative workspaces.

I’ve referred to the work Simon Dickson recently did in setting up a blog for the NHS Darsi review. Another good example of using best of breed tools at little cost. If you don’t have the skills required in-house to set something like that up reckon five to ten days of your favourite freelancer’s time to sort it out for you (I know it doesn’t take that long to set up a blog itself but there is plenty of associated work required, especially if you want to make it look as integrated with the corporate domain as the NHS blog does).

But I also have sympathy with the position the IT departments find themselves in (you don’t know how hard it was to write those words….). One commenter on Jeremiah’s post summed up how the perceived intransigence can be overcome.

“Any organization actually looking to deploy social media technology needs to have the IT department support them. Not doing so would be a waste of time, money, and resources. If you can’t get the support than you are selling the wrong people.

Step 1. develop social media concept

Step 2. implement pilot on your own time

Step 3. sell your management on the idea

Step 4. leverage you management buy-in to develop corporate strategy

Step 5. use corporate strategy to get funding and prioritization for IT

Step 6. bring project to IT for company wide implementation

If you make it to step 6, you are well on your way to a good implementation. Keep in mind step 4 & 5 are the hardest!! Convincing senior management that your little social media/collaboration project is just as important as business continuity or an ERP implementation will be hard. The data from the pilot will be critical. The buy-in will also be critical.

Then again, you could skip the IT department, implement it yourself, and become an IT support person yourself instead of a strategist or innovator….”

I think that’s absolutely right. There’s simply no point in trying to experiment within the corporate environment. Its too expensive and they won’t recognise the real value of using these tools initially until somebody proves it (what doubting Thomases that lot are). I did try and get quotations for deploying social media tools on the corporate infrastructure so that we could use them on the intranet. The prices quoted would have bought me a few nice cars. But for those tools to work long-term you can’t ignore the IT department and our role is to prove their value to the business so that IT want to work with you to deply them.

There is a real tension between best of breed, open source tools such as blogging platforms, that cost little to set up and use – and so called enterprise solutions that attempt to do everything but never seem to work as well (but cost the earth in comparison). That tension can only be overcome with proof that the cheaper tools deliver better value, not because they are cheaper but because they perform the function better.

Interested to know if others are using online tools and applications to deliver services, what they are using and how successful they are. I know you are a shy lot commenting here .so an email would be good. I’m interested in anything that you’ve used hosted away from your corporate hosting environment or that’s provided online (surveys, forms, blogs, wikis, project management tools, using social networks etc etc).

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  1. One approach is to tap into the existing parallel setups of the internal corporate network and the external public website infrastructure (which often seems to be managed by another part of the organisation).

    For example, in a previous role for a central government agency, we created a variety of applications from a workgroup blog (WordPress), wiki (MediaWiki), and bespoke PHP/MySQL tools to handle customer feedback and data analysis. These were hosted outside the GSI on the organisation’s web server, but with access restricted to GSI machines (with extra logins where necessary).

    Sure, there were some sticky conversations with IT, but the power of being able to create something, get it up and running and in front of senior managers without getting bogged down in the early stages – that was critical those projects’ success.

  2. It sounds interesting

  3. Stpeh – now that is really interesting. Love to know more about that and how we could set it up, way beyond me level of competency but exactly what we are looking at for some of our propositions. Perhaps we could talk? Work email is jeremy.gould (at) justice.gsi.gov.uk

  4. … and apologies for the poor typing of your name.

    • twayne
    • October 30th, 2007

    Well, the situation looks familiar indeed. I started to use Wrike http://www.wrike.com/ as a planning tool for my personal stuff. I realized that this tool was much more than just a to-do list; you can manage your whole business there. But well, who cares, right? You have to prove it first. That’s what I do every day and you know what? Gradually I started to involve people from other departments, so now they work in Wrike too. Now even IT department got interested 😉

  5. @twayne: Wrike looks interesting. Haven’t used it myself before but might give it a go.
    You’re absolutely right, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to IT buying into this stuff.

  6. Upon taking my new job earlier this summer, I had that dreaded meeting with IT to discuss the possibilities for “shiny new toys.”

    Imagine how excited I was to discover that:

    – I had total responsibility for the internet and intranet, and

    – the entire internet setup was running off a private sector server operating outside the normal government infrastructure.

    That meant my ideas had a lot more space to work in, and far fewer institutional brakes.

  7. Colin – how envious am I. Trying to set up a little service at the moment for a bit of experimental external hosting. But doing it is so far past my level of competence it almost makes me want to rush back into the arms of our infrastructure providers, almost 😉

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