The words “innovation” and “technology” form a natural combination. And so, many organizations leave the business of innovating at the feet of the IT department. It often falls on IT leaders keep the “technology watch,” remaining ever on the lookout for the next best thing in digital transformation.
While innovation is hard to measure, we know it shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. Some ideas are “cutting edge” or “revolutionary” while others may be “nice-to-have” or even “not very useful.” It’s important for the IT department to lay the foundation for novel ideas. It’s also key to ensure those ideas make life easier for the greatest number of users.
At our IEF event in Ottawa, we spoke with IT leaders representing business and government. We talked about how they drive practical innovation to where it’s most effective – and avoid making change for its own sake.
Getting the Right Ideas
Recognizing great ideas often makes the difference between “disruptor” and “disrupted.” For this reason, our guests in Ottawa found they spent more time than ever fostering an “innovation culture.” This process encourages creativity to “bubble up” from the people who know the business best – those on the front lines.
But not every idea is going to revolutionize the business. It’s also up to IT leaders to steer innovation in useful directions. IT innovation is about building foundational strategies that impact the greatest number of users. It’s not, as one member explained, “whatever you want to do as a pet project in your department.”
Here, some of our attendees noted it’s also important not to discourage creative thinking. Too many rejected ideas could stifle enthusiasm, leaving the next great concept unexplored.
“We try to encourage ideas to flow up, but if you don’t react to them or only react to some of them, it becomes kind of a negative motivator,” explained a member representing the Canadian military. “That’s the last thing you’re looking for.”
Sometimes, IT itself contributes to a lack of focus on innovation. In its enthusiasm to embrace the latest trends and technologies, IT introduces solutions that the business isn’t ready for – or doesn’t need.
One member’s organization tackled the problem by making innovation a business-side responsibility. “Instead of having an IT group drive innovation, we had IT submit ideas and let the business group select what they thought would be creative and help them with their work,” he said. “Then we’d give them a 90- or 120-day window to try it out.”
For those ideas that pass the test of usefulness comes the next hurdle: scalability. To assess this, “you look at solution sets that take care of most of the needs of most of the people,” argued one guest. When evaluating a new idea, “if it stands on its own merits, how many user groups across the organization would it benefit?” he asked. “You try to minimize the niche areas.”
Innovation as a Job Perk
Driving innovation isn’t just a means to compete in the fast-changing digital landscape. It may also be a critical recruiting tool in the technical talent marketplace.
When evaluating a prospective IT job, several of our guests noted that candidates are more interested in opportunities to innovate and less so in routine operations. Instead, they want to work on “the cool stuff” – technology projects with the potential to transform the business.
“People are coming in saying, ‘what kind of things am I going to be working on?’” said one attendee. “’I’m not interested in helping you keep the lights on – you can outsource that.’”
In this area, many IT leaders struggle to balance exciting innovation opportunities with meeting the dry – yet critical – operational requirements. As one attendee in Ottawa asked, “how do you get people doing their today job and their tomorrow job?”
One attendee recounted a conversation with his organization’s CFO. “My people are spending 80% of their time keeping the lights on. The problem is if 100% of the people are spending 80% of their time on that, nobody has the bandwidth to do anything else with their day.”
One guest with a large public-sector organization described a promising approach. “I’ve created a group I call ‘innovation garage’ or ‘digital garage’ – a group that will look ahead, that will do the technology watch,” he explained. “But I’m not making it permanent.”
This member’s “skunkworks” group will experiment with ways to apply technology to improve and transform practical aspects of the business. They will also have a rotational, by-application membership. This way, technical talent across the organization will have the chance to contribute to innovation for a defined period. Those who don’t work out return to day-to-day IT operations full-time.
Creative employees get to learn, experiment and “fail fast.” Meanwhile, the program imposes a fixed budget, timeline and clear links back to the organization’s core objectives. “They can’t just spin their wheels and innovate,” explained the member. “They’ll have something to deliver.”
From “Command-and-Control” to the Frontline
Today’s IT leaders recognize that the people who know best how technology can transform the business are working on its front lines. But this fact doesn’t free the IT department from its traditional role in “command-and-control” of technology across the organization.
For several of our guests in Ottawa, reconciling the need for frontline innovation with institutional complexities and restrictions was their biggest challenge as IT leaders.
One guest described his organization’s need for a comprehensive enterprise CRM tool. But the size, scale and variety of frontline IT requirements presented a significant obstacle. “We run retail operations, retail stores, convenience stores, gas stations. We also do financial planning and insurance,” he explained.
“Being able to adapt one tool to fit all of those different cultures is going to be huge.”
For another member, size and scale were also a challenge. “We have about 6,500 retail locations, 500 operating depots, 23 plants – it’s a huge network” he explained.
In his case, the prospect of rapid growth and a shift in the business model pressured his organization to change their thinking – fast. “We grew about 20% last year and it added about $400M in revenue,” he explained. “If our business continues to grow 20% per year, in five years our business is going to double – can our systems handle that?”
One member spoke on behalf of a major police organization. In this case, the unique needs of a policing operation created difficulties under a shared services model covering the greater public service organization. “It’s been one of the biggest irritants over the past few years,” he said. “When the government is sleeping on Sunday night, we have people who are out rolling.”
At the same time, a decentralized structure, lack of IT investment and public service regulations had hindered efforts in innovative areas like digital policing and workforce optimization. “One of our efforts will be to look at how we deliver electronic solutions at the government’s direction but still allow innovation to take place where it matters – on the frontline.”
To conclude on our IEF session in Ottawa, here’s a summary of some key insights on innovation from our participants:
– Not every new idea is a promising idea. Innovation needs to align with strategic needs.
– The opportunity to innovate can be a powerful recruiting tool.
– It’s often difficult to balance future-focused thinking with day-to-day operations.
– Sometimes institutional obstacles hinder digital transformation.
Ready to join the discussion? #CIOTableTalk