Grass-Roots IT

I worked on my first local political campaign when I was 16, and it left a mark. Ever since then, I've never thought of politics as a spectator sport. So watching Barack Obama over the past two years as he went from underrated wunderkind to president-elect, it was clear to me how he'd succeeded. The key, it seemed obvious, was his huge army of volunteers.

There's a lesson here for IT. But first, a little politics.

Conventional wisdom today says that an old-style political organization is obsolete. Nowadays, you're not supposed to flood the streets with volunteers knocking on doors and passing out leaflets. Instead, you raise lots of money from big backers and use it to flood the airwaves with TV commercials and the phone lines with robocalls.

No big backers? No money. No TV spots or robocalls? You're out of the race.

But Obama cut his political teeth in Chicago when knocking on doors was still the way it was done, both by the infamous Democratic machine and by independent candidates who opposed it. Even candidates without fat-cat money could put up a pretty good fight if they had enough volunteers to work the neighborhoods.

And there are advantages to using warm bodies instead of TV sets to spread the word about a politician. A TV commercial is gone in 30 flickering seconds. Actual human volunteers are a lot more memorable. They show their enthusiasm and respond to questions. They talk up the candidate to friends, family, neighbors and strangers. They recruit more volunteers, drum up donations, register new voters and report problems back to campaign headquarters.

They become personally invested -- it's not just some politician's campaign, it's their campaign. And on Election Day, they vote. TV commercials and robocalls don't.

There's more than that to a campaign, of course. For Obama, eventually there was fat-cat money and TV time, along with innovative use of the Internet. But from the start, Obama's big advantage was his grass-roots army of millions of local volunteers who were actively engaged, not watching from the sidelines.

Wouldn't you like to have that kind of advantage for your IT projects? Especially now, when business conditions are lousy, money is hard to come by, and there's no margin for error?

You can, sort of. You can't get millions of volunteers -- but you can recruit a small army of users in the business units you serve.

They won't knock on doors for you. But from the start, they can help define projects, promote them and keep them on track to success.

These are people who know the real requirements of any project that will touch them. They can help you identify problems that need solving -- and projects you can complete quickly, with big impact and high ROI.

They can also talk up your projects with their co-workers and managers, give you early warning when needs change or support fades, and generally serve as your eyes and ears on the business side. In short, they can work to make your project a success in every way.

And they will, especially if they feel like it's their project, too.

Yes, you'll still have to campaign for project budgets and resources. You'll need the support of the fat cats -- your CEO, your CFO and other non-IT executives and managers. But that's a lot easier to get for projects that are fine-tuned, user-focused and practically guaranteed to be successful.

As for users -- well, once they've worked on one of their IT projects, they'll never see IT as a spectator sport again.

Computerworld 's senior news columnist. Contact him atfrank_hayes@computerworld.com.

This installment of "Frankly Speaking" originally appeared in Computerworld 's print edition.

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