Innovating IT

By Patrick Gray

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Most consider innovation and information technology to be birds of a feather, with corporate IT wielding complex technologies and fielding ever-swelling ranks of tech-savvy staff. Ask a CIO what he or she prides their organization on, and innovation is often included in the answer. But is corporate IT truly innovative? In too many cases, the real answer is a resounding no.

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Innovation v. Innovative

When IT wonks speak about “innovation”, they are often talking about innovative answers to a technical problem. The industry at large is filled with tall tales of late nights getting that last piece of code to work, or integrating disparate systems across time zones to solve a “business problem”.

Therein lies the rub. Corporate IT has long been able to produce innovative solutions to well-defined problems. Colleagues in other business units may request the seemingly impossible, or diverse technologies may be integrated in a new way to deliver some piece of functionality, but, while these heroics may be innovative solutions to someone else’s problem, true innovation involves much more.

True innovation at its core is giving people an answer to a problem they never knew they had. If I tell you I am thirsty, and you give me a glass of water, all the heroics in the world do not make your solution innovative—despite how much as it may be appreciated. True innovation is eBay; a solution I never could have articulated before it existed. The technology industry as a whole contains myriad examples of true innovation, yet much of it fails to make its way into corporate IT departments. So, here are a few simple ideas to bring more innovation into your IT shop:

Get outside. - IT often constructs artificial walls between itself and that dreaded entity: “The Business”. Worse yet, IT often falls into an oft-hyped “customer service” model, either of which puts IT in the position of a subservient and passive entity, waiting for a problem from “The Business” for which it will develop a solution.

Break free from this narrow view of the world, and learn about your company’s products, market, its strengths and its competitors. Look at the corporation as a whole and ask critical questions and you will likely see areas for improvement and true innovation. Talk to colleagues about the struggles they are facing and return with answers to problems they did not even realize they had.

Find your “Walkman”. - Sony amazed the world and became a household name with the Walkman portable music player, one of the quintessential solutions to a problem no one knew they had. Few people were demanding portable music players, but people obviously enjoyed music, and the available solutions were large, loud and not easily portable.

It did not take a very large mental leap to see that a portable music player would be a hit, Sony simply articulated a problem that no one else could, and then developed a solution. While the Walkmans of the world may be few and far between, there are other similarly innovative solutions that IT can easily deliver.

One of my favorite examples came from a CIO who worked at a company with a huge, geographically dispersed sales force. Sales rarely has good things to say about IT, and vice versa, as support for a highly mobile group can be extremely difficult.Unprompted and with little fanfare, this CIO loaded a few of her staff on a plane to the company’s annual sales conference, and they setup a small booth where the salespeople could get technical support, solve hardware or software problems and get any other miscellaneous support they might need. The booth was a huge hit, and the price of a few plane tickets did more for IT and the CIO’s reputation among sales than a massive CRM implementation IT had spent years on.

Again, no one came knocking on the CIO’s door demanding IT representation at the sales conference, she simply found an innovative way to deliver a solution to a problem they could not yet articulate.

Solve problems, don’t deliver “solutions”. - Many corporate IT departments are stuck in a morass of spending years seeking funding for a “solution” rather than attempting to solve a business problem. The IT industry feeds this trend, attempting to pitch their products as if a few bits of software and some professional services really were a competitive weapon.

A truly innovative IT department can combine process expertise with technical acumen to solve a business problem, delivering the most expedient and efficient solution rather than the most technically elegant. Often IT forgets about the 80/20 rule, spending 80% of its time on the technically sexy 20% of a business problem.

If IT is truly part of the business, you can and should say “No” to requests that do not provide competitive advantage to the company as a whole, even if they do justify the latest and greatest software package or shiny new hardware.

True innovation is the stuff of legends, be it the first telephone call or a sea of smiling sales reps at the annual sales conference. Legends move beyond cost and benefit discussions, and can elevate the CIO and IT to key players within the corporation. Rather than regaling tales of late night coding and connecting networks, imagine telling the new CIO how you changed the direction of the corporation, precipitating your move into the CEO’s office.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, located in Harrison, NY. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services. Past clients include Gillette, Pitney Bowes, OfficeMax and several other Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.