Defining Innovation

By Allen Bernard

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Much is being made these days of the role IT plays in business innovation. But what is innovation when it comes to the confluence of IT and business? Is it process improvement? By some measures, probably yes. Is it new ways of doing the same things? Again, probably yes. Is it delivering the same services in new, "innovative" ways? Sure, why not.


According to Dictionary.com, any of these definitions would probably be just fine:


in·no·va·tion [in-uh-vey-shuh n] – noun


something new or different introduced: numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum.



the act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods.


But what this definition fails to incorporate is what the CEO means when he or she says it's time for the CIO and IT to be more "innovative". What they are asking for isn't new IT systems, platforms, refreshes, or architectures. What they are looking for are new ways separate customers from their money or keep them loyal; new ways for the company to grow the top line while shrinking cost—using the same technology; new ways for the company to take market share from its rivals … plain and simple, new ways of doing or conducting its business that equates to dollars signs at the end of the quarter.


So, if you're feeling innovative because you save $5M a year after switching to software as a service, or installing a new business intelligence suite or finally getting SAP ERP to work right, think again. While these projects are important for IT to do well, they are table stakes today. A high-functioning IT infrastructure is a must if you want to take the next step.


Technology will not provide you with the answers to this conundrum. Technology is only the tool, the lathe, the blacksmith's hammer. You may come from a time when technology was innovation but, in very short order (think Internet time), those days are coming to an end. What defines innovation is what you do with technology, not the technology itself.


Web services—passé. SaaS—irrelevant. ERP—please. Like so many novel technologies before them, these too will one day be part of your successor's legacy infrastructure. What these technologies enable, however, could live on forever. What is the Internet with the World Wide Web? What is a smartphone today without the World Wide Web, SMS, GPS, location based services? Web 2.0 functionality is quickly becoming the expected norm by ever more sophisticated and jaded customers.


Old Guard, New Thinking


For the average CIO, originally hired to because of their technological savvy and know-how, seeing these opportunities may be too challenging. Most CIOs today are still heads-down technologists, and they often have to be in order to keep so much legacy infrastructure running smoothly. So, when it comes time to be innovative, what do you do?


According to BTM Corp. Founder and CEO Faisal Hoque, innovation equals information leading to knowledge that impacts the business. To make this definition work, however, means surrounding yourself with the people that have the knowledge you lack: marketing, sales, operations, finance, etc. And then using that knowledge pool to create a wish-list that dove-tails with the business' plans. Once this is done, you can come full circle and figure out how to IT can help make these things happen.


"Business innovation is in many ways a team sport," said Hoque. "It's not a one man show. So, from that point-of-view, (CIOs) have to be part of that team who brings a different way of looking at things—with a deep understanding of technology and information usage, but from a business point-of-view and have the ability to institutionalize it so it becomes a sustained innovation not just a one time innovation."


In short, you have to become a problem solver. But, not a technology problem solver. Hire the people to do that. You have to become a business problem solver if you want to carry around the title of Innovator. If you take this approach you will quickly learn what the business needs, wants, desires and, instead of coming up with reasons why it can't be done, you will be part of the team that figures out how it can be done.


"For innovation to happen, you have time to think about fundamental, change-the-game change," agrees IT Futurist Thornton May. "Right now, we have a unique moment to really make a difference with IT but that is contingent up on being able to extricate ourselves from the soul destroying (task) of just keeping the lights on."


In other words, if you can't get away from the day-to-day of putting out fires and running IT, then your role as an innovator will be severely hindered from the start. Firefighting is the Achilles Heel of innovation—how can you think creatively if you're mired in doing someone's else's job all day—or at least what should be someone else's job.


You need the time to figure things out. What you are after is the knowledge that is not known yet. The New. The Different. Unlike your network admins or DBA's, there aren't any "Innovation" break/fix manuals out there detailing the steps of what you need to do. And that "fix" is nothing short of figuring out how IT can help the business reach its goals. This, according to May, is "the next value add for IT."


"The way I look at (innovation) is doing things with IT that either let's the business do new things, sell new products, sell new services, or let's do the same things in new ways, said Andi Mann, a research director at Enterprise Management Associates.


"You can certainly innovate in terms of internal processes and management tools but when the CIO is being asked to innovate that's not what he's being asked to do. He's being asked to do things that allow the business to be better. To be more competitive, to run at a lower cost, to improve shareholder value—the things the business cares about."