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Innovation: The next big thing

Tim Mendham | April 15, 2013
Nobody knows anything. These were the first words in American novelist, playwright and Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman's book, Adventures in the Screen Trade."

The main conditions required to foster innovation, according to the survey group, are:

Leadership encouraging idea sharing, regardless of seniority

A clear vision for the future

Encouraging and rewarding idea generation and creativity

A commitment to successfully advancing innovative ideas.

The fact that only a proportion of those espousing these criteria actually felt they worked for organisations that did this implies there is a big gap between word and action, and that innovation is easier said than done.

But they are not alone. Many organisations state in their company profiles that "innovation is our lifeblood", which makes you wonder about the state of their arteries.

So how do you do it? How do you inculcate an environment that encourages innovation and, more importantly, ensure that it actually has support and puts workable innovative concepts into practice?

In the world of IT there are two forms that innovation can take: innovations to the technology itself, and using technology to innovate within the organisation (and occasionally beyond it).

The innovation of technology

The question is how much innovation in technology can IT departments produce? Looking at some of the key 'disruptive' innovative technologies of the last decade or so, one sees that few actually originated within IT departments. Where did the ideas for cloud, social media, business intelligence, CRM, mobility and BYOD come from?

In fact, far from being revolutionary, most are what Robert Hillard, a Deloitte partner who leads the organisation's Australian Technology Consulting practice, calls "recycling innovation".

These evolutions of earlier technologies very much include 'disruptive' technologies, thus we have cloud from application service providers; social media from group emails; business intelligence from data warehousing; CRM from sales reps' shared card systems and databases; and mobility and BYOD as inevitable offshoots from the ubiquitous use and increasing functionality of consumer communication products.

These recycled innovations incorporated or amalgamated other technologies, some of which were disruptive in their own right (the Internet, for example). Nonetheless many of these came from technology vendors looking to improve their products and gain greater market share, and some of these by way of academic institutions and entrepreneurs. These are the key sources of technology innovations.

But can the ordinary intra-organisational IT department add its own layer of innovation rather than just apply someone else's? Is the IT department an enabler or a generator of innovation?

The problem with any new idea, whether it comes from an IT department or a university laboratory, is to ensure that it is relevant. Not all IT departments can afford to do basic research into fundamental principles of physics.

Microsoft has a double-barrel IT research operation -- the larger part looks to improve processes and develop products, the other (Microsoft Research) to generate new ideas. A lot of what that second part does verges on the 'basic' side of research. It collaborates as much upstream with universities as it does with downstream product development. But most organisations are not so blessed (and most organisations are not multi-billion dollar IT product vendors).


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