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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."

It is a reality for most IT departments that their innovations on the technology itself are limited to writing code.

Certainly IT departments can bring perspective to vendor innovation -- as a customer, they can see broader implementation opportunities. But the true proactive innovative ability of the IT department lies not so much in technology development as in reorganising, redeveloping and reinvigorating the organisation, which offers far more immediate results and satisfaction.

The technology of innovation

The more practical -- and common -- way IT departments can innovate is in the application and development of technology for current business operations: improving existing processes, looking at different and sometimes new (innovative) ways of doing things, and occasionally looking to take the organisation into uncharted territory. IT as risk merchant. IT as business generator.

But where do you start?

There are as many different treatises on how to encourage, capture, develop and apply innovation as there are innovation consultants. Sifting through them all can be confusing, but probably the best place to start is to talk with your customers, both internal and external, try to understand their needs and frustrations, hear their suggestions, and then, based on you and your department's broad experience and intuitive mindset, to see if you can apply existing technologies or if there is a need to develop new processes and procedures.

The really intuitive IT department will understand the business so well that they will develop solutions before the customer has even realised they have a problem. A Gartner report, coyly titled Find the 'Little Elephants' and Get Big Results, suggests 'micro-innovation' is a good starting point, especially when considering the differing approaches to risk and urgency between various business units.

"The front office is often confronted not by the big problems that IT is typically good at solving, such as implementing ERP," the authors of the report say, "but rather a potpourri of small problems that resist standardisation. Solving some of these small problems can lead to disproportionately big results. These 'little elephants' require micro-innovation.

"The process of discovering and implementing breakthrough micro-innovations follows a set of five simple rules that depart markedly from the way IT traditionally operates."

Briefly, these are:

Know your business

Break rules and barriers

Ensure idea-to-impact in half a year or less

Don't do all your own thinking

Test everything.

Perhaps the biggest cultural shock among these is to break the rules. Innovation is about 'doing it differently', but consciously going out to break rules can be a real trial, especially when "people are invested in the status quo", which applies to business managers as much as it does to IT.

"Little elephants have the advantage of taking little time and cost to deploy and, as such, can often be done under the radar. Organisations should not be afraid of breaking some traditional rules. In fact, they should use that as a measure of success."

 

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