Six Keys for Creating an Innovative IT Team

Before IT can innovate, it needs to build a solid infrastructure and demonstrate business-savvy.

CIO Steven Agnoli is a full innovation partner at global law firm K&L Gates. What it takes to be in that position—which helped earn his company a 2007 CIO 100 award—requires a balance of practicality, creativity and a hefty dose of soft skills.

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1. Lay a strong IT foundation. You need to get the basics right before you can start thinking about innovation, says Agnoli. To that end, strong operations and well-running infrastructure have to be a given. “It’s very difficult to move forward without that strong foundation,” he says. If you aren’t keeping the lights on and the trains running on time, you won’t even have the time to devote to innovation.

2. Create an IT team that inspires confidence and trust. An IT team with strong communication skills lays the foundation for businesspeople to believe in the team’s capabilities. Your team—from the help desk on up to the CIO—should be responsive to your users. If there’s a problem, users should be told when the problem will be worked on and fixed. Having users who are frustrated by computer problems that prevent them from doing their work, combined with lack of attention by the IT department, does not instill the confidence an IT team needs to go beyond the basics.

3. Stay in sync with the business. Make sure what you do is in line with what the business wants to accomplish. Some companies are very forward-looking and progressive, some are more cautious, says Agnoli. Either way, your IT strategy should be focused on enabling the achievement of business goals. You need to move forward in step with the business. “If they keep looking backward and we’re still in the same spot, there’s a problem,” says Agnoli. That said, an IT group that is too forward-thinking can be just as much of a mismatch as one that's too backward.

4. Speak the language of the business. “We don’t talk about tech per se,” since tech jargon can alienate those outside of IT, says Agnoli. The key is to talk with the business about the technology in terms of the problem it is solving or the progress it is enabling, rather than tech features. To get anywhere, people have to understand what you’re saying, he says. “We have a no-acronym rule, [for example], it’s too easy in IT to hide behind the tech mumbo jumbo.”

5. Reframe the problem. Speaking the language of the business is much more than translating tech speak into business speak, it’s literally seeing the problem first and the solution separate—apart from technology. In some cases it’s basic project management, says Agnoli. First you need to gather the right people and talk about what you are trying to accomplish. Only then—once you know your goals and problems—do you talk about the tools that will help you.

“A lot of times people try to solve the problem before they even know what it is,” he says. The problem is, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” he says of the way many in technology see business issues. “Sometimes the solution is the latest and greatest technology, and sometimes it’s a tablet and a pencil. That’s why we focus on what we’re trying to accomplish and for whom, and only then do we think of the right technology.”

6. Create groups to focus on daily and long-range goals. At K&L, having these two groups “allows us to keep focus on areas we need so we’re not interrupting long-term areas with the problem du jour,” says Agnoli. “It can be challenging to switch gears.” Dividing the labor keeps each group focused on its core goals, he says. Remember that setting up these two groups means you still need strong communication with both sides.

Doing all of the above gives your IT group the chance to be central to an organization’s success. K&L Gates was a CIO 100 honoree, based on its Legal Information System.

The system allows lawyers and other staff to create and share information on cases, statutes and other information, as well as being a vehicle to information services such as Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw provide. The company says that no other legal information service provider has such a capability, and notes the Legal Information System has proven both a means to grow the firm's customer base and a market differentiator. Agnoli says that five years ago when the first exploration into creating such a system was attempted, he was able to talk about why the then current solution was not meeting business needs.

The system now has 700 users, and since its first implementation (there have been upgrades since it first debuted), the company’s revenue has tripled to $5 million a year. Agnoli was instrumental in the success of this solution, operating as an innovation partner along with the business side and key clients as they created the best solution. Tech savvy, coupled with business savvy, is a potent combination.

It may sound like a cliché, but “nothing succeeds like success,” says Agnoli, “Once you succeed they want more and more and more, then people give you the next job and then the next.”

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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