End-user innovation is a tough sell in good times. In uncertain economic times its tougher.
Sell it anyway.
To do so, you must understand the three main arguments against any project that seeks to free end-users to be more innovative: risk, cost, and return. Until you consider these elements and master the ability to talk them through with upper management, you'll have no hope of creating the potential breakthroughs possible when end-users can turn their insights into business opportunities.
So let's imagine you want to make this happen, using Apple's iPad as the focal point of the program ... not a bad idea as a lot of end-users want them anyway. Here's how it plays out.
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End-user innovation: The risks
To encourage end-user innovation, you have to either give end-users the tools they'll need to innovate new solutions or let them shop the tool store for their own.
Allowing users to purchase their own tools fills your average IT professional with righteous dread. It means giving end-users unlocked devices they can use as they wish, thereby greatly increasing the possibility of security holes in your network, according to most information security professionals.
Giving end-users the tools to innovate, on the other hand, encourages the creation of the legendary renegade spreadsheet and other weapons of mass confusion -- disasters caused by end-users' supposed inability to properly design and test the solutions they create. Not to mention an inevitability: The tools you provide won't be the tools they want. It's as if you set them up with a woodworking shop complete with hammer, nails, drills, screws, and screwdrivers, only to have them insist that they need a jigsaw and lathe. Do you know the damage someone can do with a jigsaw and lathe?
All of the risks are real. Even worse, only IT cares about them -- so long as they remain risks. Should any become real, everyone else in the business will care about them deeply, and in particular, they will care to know why IT allowed an entirely preventable situation from ever occurring.
Do what you can to minimize and mitigate the risk without preventing the activity.
End-user innovation: The costs
Then there's the cost. Tools aren't free. When end-users get stuck or find themselves in trouble, they call for support, and that isn't free either. Budgets are tight and getting tighter, and in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, end-user tools aren't needs; they are, depending on your perspective, either wants or desires.
Unlike the risk argument, which is fairly accurate though one-sided, a lot of the cost argument against end-user innovation is utter nonsense. Tools first: Some are free, and a lot more are cheap enough that the out-of-pocket cost isn't worth mentioning.
As for the Maslow argument, Maslow would smack anyone making it upside the back of their heads. Corporations don't have wants and desires. They have nondiscretionary expenses -- needs -- and discretionary expenses. Classifying the latter as either wants or desires ignores the fundamental nature of business -- namely, that expenditures are investments.
The needs/wants/desires formulation says that given a proposal for an unnecessary expenditure (a "desire") that yields a risk-free 387.4 percent return on investment, businesses should reject it for not being a "need." If you work in a company that takes this position, you might want to consider moving to a different company that has more interest in making something I like to call "profit."
That leaves the cost of end-user support, which is real, increasing in proportion to (1) the number of end-users; (2) the richness of the toolkit you provide; and (3) the amount of freedom you allow.
It also might increase in proportion to the level of end-user sophistication, but it might not. Sophisticated end-users won't need your help figuring out how to bold-face text or indent a paragraph. On the other hand, when sophisticated end-users get into trouble, figuring out what went wrong and how to fix it is a whole lot more time-consuming and expensive.
End-user innovation: The return
Risk and cost are easy to justify when there's a quantifiable financial return. That's where the conversation about end-user innovation becomes awkward -- because there isn't one. At least, there isn't anything you can predict in a measureable way.
Time for a brief history lesson: Way back when, after the ancient ferns turned into coal but before the advent of competing private telephone companies, AT&T operated Bell Labs, also known as The Place All Scientists Wanted to Work. At one time, it had as many as 30,000 employees.
What did they do to generate a return on AT&T's investment? Most of them probably ended up doing very little in the greater scheme of things. They didn't have to, either, because an organization only has to develop a few transistor-size breakthroughs (others included Unix and the C programming language) to fund a whole lot of other research that turned out to be either dead ends or Nobel-prize-caliber discoveries with no commercial potential -- the cosmic background radiation, for example.
As Albert Einstein once pointed out, "If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" That's both the difficulty and opportunity of end-user innovation.
It's a statistical thing. Take a critical mass of smart people who understand the business and were born with the curiosity gene. Give them a bit of time and the proper encouragement. You won't know which ones will end up having an aha moment that turns into a huge opportunity. Statistically speaking, though, the odds seem pretty good, and one or two is all it will take to pay for the company's investment.
Start with some iPads. They aren't all that expensive. To be completely fair, they also aren't ideal business gadgets. Apple's failure to provide an accessible file system would be enough all by itself to lead to universal ridicule if there were any justice in the world, instead of it leading to a raft of Android copycat devices that share the same design flaw.
But that's OK. It doesn't have to be ideal. What it does have to be is available without a lot of restrictions on how an employee can use it. Nor do you have to buy enough for everyone. Most employees, once they discover the iPad isn't a life-changing experience, isn't as useful as a laptop for actual work, and are found out playing Angry Birds on company time, will put the device aside as an enjoyable toy they have no actual use for. There's no harm done, unless you inflict it by saying some version of "I told you so."
Encourage employees to try them out and see what they come up with. If the answer is nothing, encourage them to return their iPad to IT for reassignment to another employee who might have a promising idea.
Figure you buy a dozen or so iPads, assign one IT staff member to support the effort, and estimate that on the average each employee will hold on to their iPad for a couple of months. That means the company's total investment will be less than $100,000, in exchange for which it will get 72 opportunities for improvements of unpredictable, but possibly huge value.
If nothing comes of the experiment, it might mean the company runs as efficiently as possible -- unlikely, but something to be immensely proud of. More likely, it would mean the company raises so many barriers to innovation that nothing penetrated them. That's fixable if someone decides fixing it is worthwhile.
Or the situation might be even worse: It might mean the company has hired and retained only employees who have no innovative ideas -- which also means it employs "leaders" who hire employees like that, throughout the chain of command.
At the end of the year, you'll either have some solid innovations to point to, or the company's leaders will have some serious soul-searching to do.
Either one can lead to significant improvements in company performance.
This story, "Making the most of an iPad pilot program," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.