To break IT bottlenecks, try user-driven innovation

Your company's cubicles are filled with hidden IT assets. It's time to let them do the IT work you never get to

What happens to a machine when you clean out all the sand in the gears? In a hundred different places, it runs just a bit better than it used to.

The same might be said for IT organizations that encourage user-driven innovation (UDI? Why not?) and its close cousins, IT consumerization and BYOT (bring your own tech).

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Get Bob Lewis's continuing IT management wisdom in his Advice Line blog and newsletter. | Bob Lewis outlines the IT survival guide for uncertain times. ]

BYOT and the consumerization of IT are fast gaining NBT (next big thing) status among the analyst set. One problem: With few exceptions, the business case for employing a BYOT strategy has thus far been weak, amounting to a combination of social pressure (lots of users want it) and trend-following.

But dig deeper into IT's overarching mission and the case becomes clear. The UDI/IT consumerization/BYOT trio provide valuable opportunities for businesses to take maximum advantage of what IT has to offer.

What the TSA can teach businesses about information technology

Yes, one of the most aggravating aspects of traveling, airport security, has something to teach us. It's rooted in the late Eliyahu Goldratt's Theory of Constraints. TOC, the most important process improvement methodology most people have never heard of, is arguably more useful than either of its better-known competitors, Lean and Six Sigma.

To hopelessly oversimplify it, here's how TOC works: (1) Focus on a part of your business that isn't performing as well as you'd like -- usually but not necessarily a process; (2) identify its bottleneck -- what it is that keeps this part of the business from performing better; (3) increase the capacity of the bottleneck step until it isn't the bottleneck anymore; and (4) rinse and repeat.

How you increase capacity depends on the situation. TSA's approach is brute force. It hasn't developed a more streamlined way of making sure someone isn't trying to sneak through a weapon. It just opens more processing lines. It isn't elegant, but it works.

And it's exactly how you can tap into spare IT capacity hidden in plain sight.

Breaking down IT's bottlenecks

To understand how this approach will help IT help the business, take a look at IT's traditional bottlenecks and what we are doing about them.

Broadly speaking, IT has three bottlenecks:

  • The big stuff: Supporting strategic business change with large-scale system implementations. We're a bottleneck here because, for the most part, whether building from scratch or integrating COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) or SaaS (software-as-a-service) solutions, the work is complicated and there's a lot of it.
  • System enhancements: Because we don't have enough developers to handle the volume of requests we receive, not to mention the volume of requests people don't bother making because they know we won't be able to get to them, we're the bottleneck here as well. The reason we don't have enough developers is, of course, because most of them are working on the big stuff.
  • The small stuff: Somewhere between the big stuff and system enhancements are the projects that would help small departments, individual workgroups, and even single employees streamline their work and otherwise be more effective. These projects tend to fall into the cracks because their impact is too small to matter compared to the big stuff, even when cost/benefit analysis shows an excellent return. In other words, they're too big to sneak in but too small to staff.

When it comes to addressing these bottlenecks, thus far the big stuff has received the most emphasis. It's where the agile/waterfall wars rage, and it's where most of the attention to IT governance has been focused -- as it should be. The big stuff is where most of the time, money, and effort go, and it's where most of the risk lives, too.

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