Skunk Works Make
For High Morale
At Flextronics, which actively fosters a pervasive culture
of innovation, more than 50% of IT employees who have
left the company to take high-paying jobs elsewhere have
returned, according to CIO David Smoley.
“They come back and say that the scope of their responsibilities at Flextronics is so much more interesting and rich.
That gives them a lot of job satisfaction,” Smoley says.
The innovation culture has played out particularly well in
India, where Flextronics is adding 100 new jobs.
“What we’ve found is that by creating this culture of in-
novation, our retention levels are higher and we get talent
we wouldn’t ordinarily get given our position in the mar-
ketplace,” Smoley says. “People see Flextronics as a place
where you can get exposure to problems that you wouldn’t
see at [Indian outsourcing companies] Tata and Wipro,” he
says. “Here, you’re put on a global team with exposure to
multiple sites and people. You get stretched to think and act
in ways that you didn’t sign up for.”
A skunk works and an emphasis on IT innovation help reas-
sure employees, says JetBlue Air ways C TO Terry Dinterman.
“If you’re part of a team with the capability to try new
things and innovate, it’s cool to identify that your organization is dabbling in new technologies,” says Dinterman. “As
an employee, it’s also reassuring to know that your company is staying in front [of the tech trends], particularly for
those of us in IT who have been around the block a time or
two,” he says.
Skunk works assignments also give managers a tool to
keep employees engaged during lean times when promotions and pay increases are nearly nonexistent.
“We have a thin IT organization, and you’re not going to
get promoted unless someone leaves,” notes the CIO of a
global consumer products company. “Your only options are
to enjoy where you are or go somewhere else. If employees
stay here, I want them happy,” he says, noting that the
skunk works has a definite positive impact on employee
morale and engagement.
“When [an IT employee] starts talking to people at other
companies, they find out how different their environment
is here. They get to play, try things out and build a killer
résumé,” the CIO says. “It has happened several times that
they haven’t taken another job that pays more because
they’re having a blast here.”
— JulIA KIng
Currently, the airline has a small team known as Crew
Member Technology Services that is dedicated to “scanning the
technology horizon and dabbling with anything out there” in the
area of virtualization and thin client technology, says Dinterman.
“By moving to a pure thin client and virtualizing our desktops,
we expect the cost of supporting customers to be cut by one-third,” he says. This same group is also investigating the business
value of tablets and various “bring your own device” scenarios.
“Pretty much all this group does is try to experiment to make
things work and think through the policies and support models and
all of the other issues associated
with new technologies,” he says.
Dinterman says a separate
skunk-works-type group is
needed, especially when a
company is in growth mode
“We try to be very lean, so
asking anyone with an opera-
tional, day-to-day initiative to
spend a portion of their time
dabbling in experimental activi-
ties is too much. The pressure
of keeping the environment
up and running is difficult and
unpredictable enough,” he says. Terry Dinterman
For the most part, formal budgets seem to have no place in a
skunk works. Instead, most CIOs describe scenarios in which
they artfully move money around to fund experiments with technologies that show great promise for delivering business value.
Last year, for example, an IT manager approached Paul Major,
managing director of IT at Aspen Skiing Co., with an idea for
streamlining an especially labor-intensive and manual process of
redeeming vouchers for ski classes with instructors.
“I asked him what he thought he needed and he told me a few
hundred dollars for a scanner to see if the idea would work,”
Major recalls. “The end result is that this year, after a season of
experimentation, we’re going to roll out a brand-new program
that will revolutionize the way we do ski lessons and the way that
instructors get scheduled and paid.”
As for the budget, he says, “we always have a few line items
we could poke a few thousand dollars in without generating too
much scrutiny from the finance team. We always will have a way
to get [would-be experimenters] $1,000 and allow them to go
play with duct tape and sawdust and try it out without wreaking
havoc and see what works,” he jokes.
“For us, skunk works is more of a mentality than a process.
It doesn’t matter if you have $100 or $100,000; it’s about giving
people resources to try things and see what happens,” says Major.
Looking ahead, many CIOs foresee even greater activity in
skunk works where they already exist and the creation of new
skunk-works-type activities where there are none currently. The
reason is directly tied to the rapid pace of technology change.
“There will be much more pressure to do this kind of thing,”
says the CIO at the consumer products company. “Companies
want better, faster, cheaper, but IT doesn’t know how to do that
unless they try things out.” u