Starting back in the 1950s, within the bowels of Lockheed Martin, was an informal outside-the-mainstream den of innovation called the "skunk works," in which engineers and designers were allowed to work on any ideas they had, unfettered by management dictates. The skunk works produced a range if innovative aircraft, including the U-2 and SR-71.
The "skunk works" concept was popularized by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their seminal work In Search of Excellence, which celebrated teams of employees who shucked and generally ignored the bureaucracy to create innovations which changed the course of their businesses.
Are application programming interfaces (APIs) and build your own applications (BYOA) today's version of skunk works? That may be the case, say the Loose Couple. But there's a catch-22.
In their latest post, they posit that IT departments tend to represent the bureaucracy ("ball and chain") that end-users are going around, through and under to create their own technology vision. Previously, they note, "many of these innovations came in the form of snippets of software, or micro-applications, usually created through a combination of necessity, whatever was available on their desktops and sheer bloody-mindedness. Where I come from, they call it Skunk Works."
There are some differences between the skunk works of yore and today's skunk works. Skunk works typically were supported by Microsoft Office applications running on PCs -- now they are popping up "in a myriad of shapes and sizes, and on across a plethora of mobile device platforms – iOS, Android, WP8, Ubuntu…and whatever comes next."
APIs now exist to support business processes, as well as deliver and analyze data.
However, paradoxically, while skunk works may be intended as end-runs around IT, the participants need IT to help them. As the Loose Couple put it:
"To a large extent, leveraging the true power of an Enterprise API today in the form of an app for a mobile device requires the skills of a developer. Not many of the end-users that are able to create MS Access databases for their own purposes have the required skills to code HTML5, Xcode or Java and are not familiar with how to interpret a JSON payload."
The Loose Couple says this too, shall pass as front-ends to ever-increasingly complex technology get simpler. Perhaps it's more analogous to a parent seeing his or her child off into the big, bad world than a skunk works team breaking free from a ball and chain. But in the meantime, IT is going to have to help users get around IT. Keep those support and help desks ready.