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.