Learning By Example

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 01-17-2003 Print Email

Learning By Example

Bell Canada CIO Eugene Roman says that while contemplating the idea of creating an IT proving lab, his project team studied what other consulting organizations and companies were doing, and went on field trips to technology incubators.

It was during one such visit in November 2001, to Ford Motor Co.'s iTek Center in Dearborn, Mich., that the ideas for Bell's lab began to gel. What Roman and his team saw at Ford was a cross between a joint application development (JAD) and a rapid application development (RAD) approach to new projects. But here, too, IT-business alignment was the secret sauce. Ford, which has invested about $80 million in the iTek facility, brings together teams from the business, design and technology divisions to work on initiatives. Their goal is to plan, develop and test a process or a technology application within a 90-day window.

Roman took the ideas he saw at Ford, combined them with strategies and input gained from other companies such as IBM and outsourcing partner CGI, and came up with the plans for what is now Bell's IT lab, called the Centre for Information Technology Excellence, or exCITE! for short.

Barely 60 days later, in February 2002, the lab was launched and now has branches in four Canadian cities—Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Mississigua. Roman describes the Toronto workspace as "serious California"—friendly and functional. Every available piece of wall space, he says, has been covered with "wall talkers," essentially whiteboards that run from floor to ceiling. Participants are encouraged to use the boards in lieu of paper, and add comments or thoughts to their colleague's ideas. But the lab is results-oriented, too. "It's like a living classroom, but it's like a living delivery room as well," he says.

So far so good: Since February 2002, 34 projects have run through the center, including a community portal application that was developed for Bell to sell to municipal governments. ExCITE! was asked to create a prototype that could be easily adapted by different cities and showcase the various Web businesses run by Bell, including Sympatico (Internet access provider) and GeoSolutions, Bell's satellite-mapping service business. ExCITE! developed the prototype in four weeks at half the cost informally bid by outside vendors. An additional 17 projects are in progress, and nine more are in the pipeline.

Roman, along with Yellow's Caddell, Ford's iTek director Greg Moran and Webcor CEO Andy Ball, is pleased by what's been achieved by these IT labs so far. Bell Quebec President Guy Marier says Bell's exCITE! center is a welcome relief to the "black hole" approach Bell used to develop technology projects during the IT boom years. "Show me the money in three or four months, or move on," Marier says. "Projects start to cost a lot of money when they derail."

But the biggest payoff so far? "Now, people know where to go when they have a good idea," Marier says. Indeed, done right, IT labs not only can help to institutionalize innovation, they can help to make innovation pay for itself.

Mel Duvall is a Calgary-based technology and business writer. His work has appeared in CIO Insight magazine and Baseline. Debra D'Agostino contributed to this report.


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