Thursday, July 10, 2008

Going beyond idea contests

Idea contests: Looks like idea contests are in vogue these days. I must have met at least half a dozen innovation champions from different organizations who said they had idea contests in the last 6 months. Some had specific fund allocated for this contest and they funded select few projects for Proof of Concept (PoC) development. Some said the initiative got choked when they received several hundred ideas and they weren’t ready with the idea selection criteria. Some cribbed about 99% ideas being incremental improvements. No matter what each of them said, I felt it was a good way to get the engine started.

Innovation wave: 5 years back if you were an IT company and if you had not assessed yourself for CMM level-5 or if you are not running a CMM initiative, you would be looked upon as a laggard. Looks like it is time for an innovation wave now. However, there is a difference. ISO, CMM, PCMM or any other quality certification comes with clear-cut guidelines as to what steps are to be taken and what artifacts to show to get there. Unfortunately, innovation is on a much murkier ground. NASSCOM has been playing the “innovation” trumpet for a few years now. However, most organizations are still lost as to where to start. Well, idea contests certainly seem to fit the bill, at least for now.

Where is the catch? You may say, “Where is the problem?” Well, the experiences most narrate seem to remind me of my graduate school days in Buffalo, New York. When we used to come back from an India trip during December vacation, starting the car was a dreadful experience. First, you don’t know whether the engine will start at all. Remember these were graduate student cars, either second-hand or more likely third-hand cars. If you are lucky and the engine starts, chances are high it will stop in the next few minutes. No wonder many of us became good at jump-starting cars by connecting cables to friend’s car’s batteries. Idea contests seem to resemble starting the engine which soon go back to its natural state – which is at rest. Real challenge is, how do you keep the engine running?

Basic unit of analysis for innovation capability: Doesn’t all this: idea contest, number of ideas it generates, number of employees who log ideas, what kind of ideas finally get prototyped or even make to product or offering definition, give an indication of organization’s innovation capability? Brown and Duguid say “No” in their paper titled “Organizational learning and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation” (published in 1991). These researchers and some others feel that basic unit of analysis for innovation capability should be self-governing passionate communities within the organization. In Google, these are called “intergrouplets” (see Sergy Solyanik’s blog),in KM circles these are called Communities of Practice, some places they are called SIG and McKinsey studies them as informal knowledge networks. Unfortunately, many organizations don’t know how to detect these networks, how to support them and of course, how to leverage them.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Will you hire a BCom architect?

Hiring a BCom: I was talking to a business leader at one of the large MNCs in Bangalore. The topic was challenges and approaches in moving up the value chain. He mentioned our fixation on educational qualification as one of the challenges. Apparently, the organization was trying to hire for an architect position and one of the suitable candidate was only BCom. The person did very well in all aspects of the interview. However, managers and existing architects were unwilling to consider him for the position. Many must have done MTechs from prestigious institutions. Hiring a BCom as a peer may suddenly make their efforts to get into these institutions and slogging during their engineering days appear futile.

Fixation on educational qualification: I lost interest in degrees and formal education, in general, quite some time back. But then I don’t talk about it much as I get back a response, “It is ok for you to think like this as you have a BTech from IIT and a PhD from a US university.” Well, I understand that formal education has a role to play in the whole game. For one, it certainly tells you about certain analytical and problem solving ability when one goes through engineering education. Moreover, cast system among various courses (engineering, pure science, commerce, arts) is very strong in our society. However, I feel that we give far too much importance to it. Moreover, we use it as a crutch to shrug off responsibility in actually probing competence deeply.

Social learning: Social learning theory takes an interesting stand. It says that in a social system (such as an organization or a community of architects etc) competence is historically and socially defined. Knowing, therefore, is a matter of displaying competences defined in social communities. So it is not important whether you know something or not. What is important is whether you can articulate it in language understandable by the community to which you wish to belong. Of course, you can’t articulate something unless you understand it. But then we know in how many interviews you really get probed deeply. Degrees make it easy to assume that you speak the same language as the rest and hence you are competent. No wonder diversity is a rarity in organizations.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Top challenges in developing technical leadership

In earlier articles I have written about challenges from engineer’s perspective in becoming a technical leader and also about demand and supply side drivers in developing technical leadership. Here I would like to summarize what I believe are the challenges Indian IT organizations are facing in developing technical leadership:

· Cost-based business model: Most of the Indian IT organizations work on the cost based business model. This is irrespective of whether it is an India-headquartered IT services firm or a subsidiary of a global MNC firm. Every project is estimated based on number of person-month effort it takes and budgeted accordingly. Many times there is an average billing rate associated with the relationship independent of the experience level or value an expert brings to the table. This equation dis-incentivizes growing experts in the team (as your profitability goes down). I have written earlier about Rs.15 Lakh salary dilemma which articulates this challenge. There are leaders who are trying to play with this model. They are hiring domain experts and trying to show how productivity of certain teams is much higher than the rest and hence pricing should be “value-based” rather than “cost-based”. I would call it “prototyping phase” and we have yet to find “early-adopters”.

· Lack of meaningful roles: Even if organization feels the need to develop technical leaders, it needs to create such roles where a person should feel valued. Creating a role with “architect” in the title and without providing meaningful job content leaves the person even more frustrated (see Beware of technical ladder roles). Most of the time, resources are dedicated to accounts (or product lines). At senior levels, the roles should involve influencing multiple projects or programs and this may need re-negotiating contract terms to ensure that there won’t be any breach of confidentiality or dilution of value added.

· Lack of role models: Role models make a lot of difference in motivating juniors to choose a particular career path. In Indian IT industry there is severe shortage of technical leaders. Even those who are doing serious work double up as managers due to either social or political reasons. When I facilitate technical leadership workshops, I realize very strongly that many participants look at the “technical leader” role more as a hypothetical role.

· Lack of maturity in talent market: It is only recently that jobs with “consultant”, “architect”, “Systems engineer” titles have started showing up. However, it will take a few years before engineers look upon these “secure” roles.