23 Jan Scott Converse, UW-Madison School of Business, on the innovation mind-set
Editor’s note: Scott Converse, director of technology programs for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is part information technologist, part futurist, and part “anti-change agent,” as he demonstrates in Part II of this interview. In Part I, he addressed information technology workforce development issues. In Part II (below), he addresses creating a culture of innovation and finding IT talent.
Scott Converse also is a featured speaker at the Fusion 2007 CEO-CIO Symposium.
WTN: If you were running an organization today, what would you do to make sure it was driving a culture of innovation?
Converse: One of the things that any organization that is focused on innovation needs to have built, right within their culture, is having a culture of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement, not a culture of change. That’s a common catch phrase that you hear nowadays: “We need to foster a culture of change.”
I would argue that, for almost everybody, myself included, change is a risky and scary proposition. Trying to create a culture that embraces riskiness and scary issues is a pretty difficult thing to do within an organization.
However, I think – maybe because I’m an optimist – inherently, people are always looking to do better things. If you can create a culture that rewards, incentivizes, and promotes continuous improvement, incremental improvements to existing processes and capabilities – that, in effect, is creating a culture of change. It’s something that is not only beneficial for innovation, but it’s a requirement for companies that thrive on innovation.
When I’m talking about continuous improvement, I’m not only talking about internal processes, but I’m talking about the products and services a company may provide as well.
WTN: How does your interest in being a futurist help you do your job (as an IT instructor) better?
Converse: I think it’s critically important to understand some of the emerging technologies and trends within the business community when you’re developing these courses. In many cases, these professional development courses are like the canary in the coal mine. People want to come to professional development courses to add to their existing capabilities, and often times that means you’re coming here to learn new and emerging ideas and capabilities. So in developing the courses, it’s very important to be looking forward, determining what are some of the emerging concepts. What’s the new research showing? What is the market capable of bearing in terms of new ideas and innovative thinking?
WTN: How did it help you in your previous role as an IT manager?
Converse: In my previous role, one of the things it did was help me identify where I would see pockets of early adoption. If I understood what new technologies, products, and services were coming out, it would help me determine who were some of the people who were early adopters in that technology or service, and better manage not only expectations that they had, but the expectations that the organization had upon them.
It’s good to have new, innovative technologies trickling into the organization, testing them and determining which ones can help you in continuously improving what you’re doing, but it’s also an issue because you’ve got non-standardized processes, technologies, and products coming in by early adopters that the rest of the organization isn’t ready for, or capable of supporting. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. You’re looking forward to help identify a new technology or service that will help the organization, and at the same time you’re looking at new technologies that you think might come into the organization that you’re not yet able to support and may hurt the continuous-improvement efforts. So you’re looking at it as an optimist and as a pessimist.
WTN: How hard is it to find good IT talent today?
Converse: The information that I’ve seen, the research that I’ve seen within the Dane County area and community, is that finding experienced technologists that have an understanding in multiple technologies, is a difficult proposition. Finding new talent is a relatively easy thing to come by in this [Dane County] region because of this pool of bright individuals coming from the university.
Experienced technologists, that’s a whole other avenue, and from the surveys and the research that I’ve seen in this region, it’s a much more difficult thing to find. I think that’s true of just about all areas, whether it’s information technology, or engineering or life sciences, or even if you were going to look at experienced, talented marketing staff or journalistic talent.
Certainly, as it relates to information technology folks, new recruits are a pretty easy find. Experienced folks are a much more difficult issue.
WTN: Is that because young people are gravitating back to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines?
Converse: When you’re looking for new talent to hire, you’re looking less for individuals that have a specific technology that they are experienced in, and more so you’re looking for people with good critical thinking skills, and some of the foundational capabilities – some of the logic, computer programming, Mac courses, to some extent some of the natural science courses that a person would take. So when you’re looking for new talent, you’re not necessarily looking for that Microsoft-certified engineer, or that Cisco network switch person who has had that experience. You’re looking for people that you can train in different technologies afterwards.
As we know, there is a significant investment that organizations make into that training to make that new recruit into that experienced and knowledgeable technologist with a particular product or a particular service.
WTN: To what extent are companies willing to take someone who didn’t pursue one of those disciplines and build them into an IT person, or develop that side of the skill base?
Converse: It’s becoming more common. As we were talking to companies about this technical leadership certificate, organizations were telling us that because we’re not able to create, because we don’t have the tools or the universities are not providing capabilities to create business analysts from technologists, they’re looking the other way. They were looking at business analysts and seeing if they could train them with the appropriate technology skills to make them the folks that straddle the fence.
So instead of grabbing an engineer or an IT professional, maybe a great network security person, and giving them the business skills needed to straddle the fence, they were taking a look at somebody in the finance or accounting department and seeing if it might be more appropriate to give them the technology skills needed to straddle that fence.
It’s a difficult proposition, though, because either way you look at it, companies didn’t have an easy solution. I would say that it is becoming a bit more popular just from anecdotal evidence that I’ve gotten from talking to companies.