IT's the thought that counts

IT staff have more to offer their companies than making the boxes work

Creativity fits awkwardly in the hierarchies of the modern business. So do many IT types. It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that the IT department is often seen as the most creative group within a company - even scoring higher than its class enemy, the marketing department.

Sadly, corporates distrust creativity. Where it is sanctioned, it is carefully locked away in research and development - although outside the technical industries, R&D is itself a rarity. While there is no shortage of lip service paid to innovation, new ways of thinking, flexibility and other market-friendly mantras, reality within an organisation rarely reflects this. New ideas are expected to trickle down from on high, descending grandly from the great minds at the top.

This is a shocking waste of resources. Everyone with a brain is capable of original thought, whether or not they play golf with the CEO: moreover, there is little more stimulating than a climate where invention and creativity are encouraged and rewarded. It doesn't have to be regulated, constrained and managed - all people need is the space to think, the freedom to talk and the respect of being taken seriously.

This is where IT can help, both practically and culturally. The tools for informal collaboration are plentiful and undemanding: with everyone already networked and confident with online working, there is little to be lost and plenty to be gained by creating a company playground for thought. Encourage skunk works (an informal project team who are encouraged to think laterally). Create an environment where spending time thinking and talking isn't seen as dossing off, but as part of the culture. Even if ideas turn out to be inappropriate or unworkable, their generation and discussion is an excellent education in business for all concerned.

Perhaps the best proof of this comes from Google, which mandates twenty percent of its employees' time to be spent on personal projects. They don't even have to be related to the business: where they are, though, they have a very good chance of turning into reality. This level of encouragement is anathema to those in thrall to the gods of efficiency and control, but it results in brilliant people sometimes taking huge pay cuts to come on board.

Of course, such ideas cannot be parachuted in to places with very different cultures. Yet even a little freedom cheaply bought can be beneficial. IT departments know this, and should be prepared to offer practical help in spreading the news throughout the company - yes, even into marketing. And if there's official disapproval or indifference, so what? Be creative. As every skunk work renegade knows, it's easier to get forgiveness than permission.