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Entries in Thought Leader (1)

Monday
Aug302010

How to be a Thought Leader in IT

Steve Sweeney, of Affinity, reached out after reading a thought leadership thought leadership blog and suggested a Curriculotta post, “How to be a Thought Leader in IT?”


The original blog post posits:

According to Wikipedia, a thought leader is a futurist or person who is recognized for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights

How does this apply to the real world? I am still thinking on this, but here are my early reflections:

• You need to be original in your thinking.

• You must have enough edge to force people to have an opinion.

• You must address issues that broaden everyone’s horizon.

• You must act as a gate-keeper that finds and share relevant information.

• You need to build a following that buy into and help spread your ideas.

Of course, all these elements apply in the IT realm.

A thought leader in IT needs to:

  • Be knowledgeable in the business and technology. Understanding business is vital, and technology important. Understanding the technology application in the business setting is where the value is provided.
  • Understand trends. This is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the IT professionals role.

    It’s important to understand the business trends. I first met the late Michael Hammer while working in manufacturing. He was talking broadly about business process reengineerging, then in the nascent stages. His thought was if manufacturers where keeping track of retail level transactions, waste could be removed. Years (truthfully, decades) later, Dr. Hammer was using the same slides in a presentation on financial services Straight Through Processing (STP). After his talk, I asked him privately about his reuse. He smiled, and said some industries take longer than others…

    While arguably a simple comment, the thing about Hammer is he had a way of capturing trends in a simplistic way.

    Technology trends are also an obvious area for focus, and where a technologist often must make value judgments around technologies to back, and which players will be around. Once proud Massachusetts companies like Wang, Prime and Digital have given way (or been acquired) by the HP, Dell, or IBM.

    There are lots of companies making disk drives. In enterprise data centers EMC and Network Appliance are often found…although HDS, Compellent and 3Par have excellent products.

    Getting a sixth sense for the technologies taking off beyond the niche is the key. There are lots of great niche products available…understanding the ones with legs and financial support are differentiators.

    There are many ways to get aware of trends. Watch larger companies in your industry or others for where they are focusing. You can do this by reading publications, attending conferences or Society for Information Management meetings, or working with consultants.

    Keep an eye on where leading colleges and universities are researching.


    Don’t network with just the same groups. Keep an insatiable curiosity for the new, and applicability in your environment.

  • Try something. In my mind, every IT shop, regardless of size, can fund a single skunk works effort. Take some of your best and the brightest people, and have them work on a “pilot” project determining the feasibility and value of some new thing.

    Silicon Valley started in a garage. The IBM PC was invented far from stodgy New York…in Boca Raton, Florida.

    While you won’t be creating a PC or launching an industry, you may be doing some leading edge work on worker mobility, desktop (specifically PC) video conferencing, behavioral intrusion prevention, or the like. Here, fund something you think has business applicability, with a 3-6 month deliverable timeframe, where “rough” is acceptable. You want to see a proof of concept, not a fully functioning enterprise ready deployment. That can come AFTER seeing the proof of concept.

    By the way, there is no reason why every person can’t do a little skunk works effort. The office superstore Staples original website was developed by three guys (a contract/commercial IT guy, a PC/networking guy, and an ops manager) using a (now defunct) outside firm interested in helping companies get on the web. The entire process was “hosted” external to Staples corporate as a way to eliminate technical risk (although the marketing people were not pleased with Staples’ skunk works on-ramp to the information super highway!)

  • Partner with a local college or university – Interns are a great way to get work accomplished with some of the best and brightest. And as I like to say, they are naïve enough to do just about anything! Please respect interns will need management/leadership time (most corporate cultures are very foreign and “enterprise quality” is not in most curriculums.)

    One company, Fidelity Investments, had the Systems Associates Program (poorly abbreviated SAP) as a way to onboard interns. Interns would complete a 2 year assignment, made up of four 6 month rotations. At the end of two years, promising SAPs would often have the opportunity for permanent placement.

    These types of programs tie you closely to where the research and thought leadership often originates.

  • Let the group work in teams – IT can often be an introverted function. IT is often made up of introverts, or geeks. When presented with a challenge, often the IT person starts working the effort alone. While useful for initial thought organization (especially for the more introverted), getting teams together will often generate an exponential increase in the number of ideas and innovation.


  • Expect and accept failure as a part of a learning process – in a pilot group environment failure is contained, and is learning.
  • Talk the successes up! Whether something you learn at a conference, invent on your own, develop in a skunk works effort….let others know what is working in industry. It can be your industry or others, it’s the applicability to your business that’s key.