Playing for keeps: Four ways play can help your team embrace digital disruption

The serious work of using play to make your business a success.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Time to let your staff play in the office?

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Play has always been a serious business: Greek philosopher Plato recognised as much over 2,000 years ago when he said: "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."

And as CIOs seek to find ways to encourage the same kind of experimental culture seen in start-up organisations, one strategy is for executives to allow employees to play - to give them the opportunity to collaborate, experiment and try new things.

The significance of imagination seems to have been forgotten at many modern firms. Take the Harvard Business Review Guide to Coaching Employees, which suggests not enough managers recognise the importance of play.

So what might this sense of play look like in a technology department and how can executives at blue-chip businesses use experimentation to survive and thrive in the digital age? ZDNet speaks to the experts and finds four best practice tips.

1. Let your employees play with a purpose

Analysts often talk about the concept of 'failing fast'. However, some industry experts believe the phrase can unintentionally drive the wrong behaviours. Experimentation says Andrew Marks, former CIO and now UK and Ireland managing director at Accenture Technology Strategy, is about 'learning fast' rather than 'failing fast'.

He believes many CIOs are keen to benefit from experimentation, but too many attempts are half-hearted. Encouraging workers to play is not, in itself, a useful business objective. C-suite executives must always think about how employees or customers will benefit.

"Start-ups do serious work," he says, referring to the ambition of CIOs to encourage experimentation by aping the work of entrepreneurial businesses. "The guys in Silicon Valley and Shoreditch don't just go out to play - they are looking to achieve something very specific.

"When children play, there's a driver behind the activity - they're learning about life and competition and it's a natural thing to explore. So - just like the entrepreneurs in tech start-ups - it is not simply play without purpose. In the end, everything you do as a CIO has to be about value creation."

2. Understand your key competitive differentiator

The power of disruption is often heavily associated to particular firms or sectors. The rise of Amazon in first retailing and then cloud computing, for example, shows how a fast-thinking firm can use its resources to change traditional business models time and again.

Yet the influence of disruption is beginning to extend across all markets. The trend is recognised by Andy Williams, global CIO at Save the Children, who says the charity sector is likely to be disrupted quite significantly in the next five to ten years. "Born-on-the-web non-governmental organisations are already having an impact and growing very quickly," he says.

Williams says his charity, like all others, must think about its response and its competitive differentiation. "If it's scale, then we need to think how we use that scale to deliver our services. Understanding our differentiator is the key strategic issue that we must deal with and the technology response follows," he says.

"In trying to meet the challenge of disruption, we run the risk of losing sight of the real benefit of having done something good quickly. We have to create the right balance between solving the problem, using our scale and getting evidence back to our donors of the money they've given."

3. Find the space to try new things

Omid Shiraji, interim CIO at Camden Council, says play relates to the inherent flex required in modern organisations. He is currently investigating how the council can take advantage of advanced developments in technology, such as the Internet of Things.

"Many of these new technologies don't have a refined business case," he says. "There isn't necessarily a number that CIOs can use to show a clear return on investment. What you often need is a bit of a leap of faith and an understanding of how these technologies can help drive positive change in the future."

Shiraji says foresight can be crucial for IT leaders looking to gain a competitive advantage through technology. Rather than waiting until a clear business case emerges, CIOs should start to explore systems and services as soon as possible.

"You can only have those types of conversation if you've got room in your own team to think about advanced technologies," he says. "It's very important - both for me and for Camden - to have the space to try new things."

4. Focus solely on what you need to achieve

Older corporations can get stuck in their ways, says Brad Dowden, CIO at recruitment specialist Airswift and an expert in transformational IT projects. Dowden has worked with executives who have run separate organisations as experimental projects. Starting an entrepreneurial venture can be a good idea.

"You don't have to rely on the traditional IT department," he says. "You can test your idea and, if it doesn't work you just switch if off. IT is becoming so user friendly and consumerised. The value is all about enabling business processes and the technology is just a platform to allow that to happen."

Dowden says the preparedness of blue-chip executives to embrace play often comes down to resources, in terms of both cash and people. "If you're running a big organisation - and the money's available - then you're more likely to go with experimentation," he says.

"But for any entrepreneurial idea to work, you can't afford to have some of your people doing their job poorly. If you spread yourself and your team too thinly, you won't be able to achieve anything because people will have to split their time between their day job and the more innovative areas. Everything great in technology is about focus."

Read more CXO stories

Editorial standards