The best companies stare their IT mistakes straight in the eye.
They don't tiptoe around them. They don't rename them "teaching moments" or "issues." They don't play blame games. They lay their mistakes bare so that their teams can improve.
They talk about their IT mistakes in the way CenterPoint Properties CIO Scott Zimmerman describes his team's first mobile application development. "We had to refactor because our egos caused us to forget the golden rule of software development: Always involve the users," Zimmerman says.
Mistakes are at the center of any business technology innovation--swing for big wins, sometimes fail, learn and improve.
We embraced this idea as part of this year's InformationWeek 500 by asking every IT team to share its biggest mistake this year. Not everyone was comfortable discussing them publicly--the wound is too fresh for some, and many are still working on the fix. What follows are real-world examples from IT teams willing to share.
Mistake: Treating mobile development like desktop development
CenterPoint is a developer and manager of industrial property, and it has some veteran application developers who know the business well. The kind you want. But when it came to building a mobile app, that knowledge of the business recently got the better of the IT team. CIO Zimmerman describes it this way:
"So when we created our first mobile app, we wanted to surprise/impress our business colleagues. We let enthusiasm cloud our judgment, trying to think through requirements for them. Initial adoption was disappointing. It 'looked cool' but didn't meet their 'mobile' needs. We failed to recognize that people often perform business functions differently in the field than at their desk."
That realization forced the team to redo the app, and it's what reminded the IT team of that golden rule of software development, and the importance of working closely with the application end users. The app is back on track.
Mobile app dev is serving up a lot of tough lessons. Few enterprise IT teams have deep experience with the technology and languages. And there's almost always an impossible time pressure, as marketing wants that mobile app this quarter rather than next year.
Vail Resorts CIO Robert Urwiler says he made the mistake of outsourcing too much of the resort company's customer-facing mobile Web app, EpicMix, in its first year. In year two, he built an internal team for much of that work (see Vail Takes Sharp Turn On Dev Outsourcing Strategy). Creating customer-facing software also demands that developers have a tight relationship with business units, especially marketing. "It's not like 'You do the idea generating, and we'll build the software,'" Urwiler says. "We need to be joined at the hip throughout these initiatives."
Mistake: Assuming everyone wants a social network inside a company
Several InformationWeek 500 companies noted initial lackluster adoption of employee-focused social networking and related collaboration tools. Some, like online game company Zynga, turned that reluctance around, while others say the software still isn't delivering. Zynga put it this way:
"We anticipated that internal collaboration tools would gain adoption faster than they did. We've made significant improvements on that front but learned a lot in the process. The biggest reminder for us was that content is key to driving internal adoption of enterprise social network tools."
What's refreshing about Zynga's experience is that it comes from a company on the cutting edge of the social Web, whose games are intimately linked with Facebook and social sharing. The Zynga team lives and breathes the social concept, but it still needed vital content in an in-house social platform to make the tools relevant.
That's an important reminder if IT is tempted to blame end users for not hopping on new social collaboration tools: Employees are old, they don't get it, they're not tech savvy. Those are all cop-outs for not providing employees with a compelling reason why a social tool is a better, more efficient way to collaborate.
Mistake: Using outsourcing the wrong way
Several companies cited outsourcing problems as their big mistake. Sometimes it was execution, such as the outsourcer not having the promised skills or capability. Vail's Urwiler, as mentioned above, felt he handed over too much project management. One admitted to moving too much to outsourcers too fast. With all of the outsourcing mistakes cited, we're seeing IT leaders get more demanding of what they expect from their vendors.
Edward Wagoner, CIO of the Americas for Jones Lang LaSalle, is fine-tuning his company's outsourced IT help desk strategy to better fit the commercial real estate company's culture. In commercial real estate, even as digital marketing becomes more important, it's still the top talent who drive growth, and these rock-star salespeople thrive on relationships.
Explains Wagoner: "We bought into the theoretical concept that certain IT functions such as help desk support could be 'black boxed' (e.g., that the end user wouldn't care who the help desk person was or where they were located as long as the problem was resolved). We failed to realize that our top talent values that personal relationship in all areas of their work life. They want to know that Donna is their IT support person. They want Donna to understand their business and the way they work. They want Donna to be a part of their extended team. They value having a relationship with Donna vs. calling an 800 number."
Wagoner has started assigning individuals to support key people and offices. Those outsourced support people have the go-ahead to ignore certain productivity metrics if it means solving a problem--"think airline platinum" status, Wagoner says. Salespeople have even called him to thank him for the support. And the relationship building continues.
Outsourcing may or may not be right for a given company. But regardless, IT needs to consider its company's unique culture and business model, and bend the outsourcing model to its needs.
Mistake: Underestimating the upside
Innovation often happens only after putting IT tools in employees' hands and watching what they do with them. Nice in theory, but it takes flexible IT operations to react to the new demand that such a process can create.
Hertz came to this realization when it created its ExpressRent kiosks, which let people make a rental car reservation using a live video call to a customer service rep, along with a touch screen to enter data, a scanner to validate a driver's license, and a printer to provide a rental agreement. But Hertz's IT team had to scramble when demand picked up in an unexpected market. Says Hertz:
"We originally marketed the ExpressRent kiosks primarily to body shops and dealerships for insurance replacement rentals, assuming usage would be greatest for one-off rentals outside of business hours. We hadn't anticipated the airport market, already fully staffed and with a vast majority of 'existing' reservations, would be the success point for implementation. Modified deployment planning and additional kiosk refinements needed to be made in addition to securing airport authorities' approval for placement."
Quintiles, which runs clinical trials for biotech companies, launched a cloud-based service for drug development in 2011. Its business plan predicted that only small biotech companies would use the service. But some of the industry's largest biotech companies showed interest, asking for a scale of deployment for which Quintiles didn't have the people or technology, forcing it to scramble to ramp up.
Success is a nice problem to have, but it can still test IT's ability to deliver results.