by Rick Swanborg

Three Ways to Find Fresh IT Ideas on the Cheap

Jan 27, 2011
InnovationMobileSmall and Medium Business

How to learn about emerging technologies without spending lots of time or money

Discovering IT innovations that you can apply to your business can be a disorganized and frustrating process. The hottest technology may be inappropriate for your business needs. It’s time-consuming to identify and validate new technology with limited IT resources. In addition, traditional ways to learn about useful technologies, such as IT conferences and research reports, may not provide enough proven ideas that are good matches for your business needs.

It’s time to get creative. Here are three ways to uncover innovative ideas without spending much time or money:

Visit Venture Capitalists

In order to place the right bets on emerging software and infrastructure innovations, venture firms specialize in investigating IT trends and networking with innovators. Talking with CIOs—who are potential customers of the companies the firms fund—helps them understand market needs and make better investment decisions.

Investors at small venture firms in your region may be more available for informal chats and meetings than those at large or well-known ones. Some companies, such as Globespan Capital, even have CIO advisory boards that meet regularly to review and discuss IT innovations. As a member of such boards, you can not only get updates on emerging technologies, you can also learn from your peers who have piloted them. In this way, you can efficiently focus on proven technologies that have a better chance of being deployed successfully in your organization.

Let Employees Try New Tools

You can seed new technologies by giving them to a few interested people and asking them to find ways to use them. If they can improve their productivity, they get to keep the product; otherwise, they return it. This is a straightforward and relatively inexpensive approach that works well with consumer products such as smartphones or tablets. For example, many companies are discovering innovative uses for mobile devices in emerging economies where traditional IT infrastructure isn’t available to support processes such as sales and logistics.

Generating real-world uses with bottom-line value gives you a way to begin a discussion with key executives about rolling out these innovations across the enterprise.

Pick Business Partners’ Brains

Many midsize and large companies run internal research centers that pilot IT innovations as part of their R&D process. If you’re a customer—or at least not a competitor—and you’re willing to share your own initiatives, you may be able to take tours of these research centers and learn what they’re developing.

Because these companies are researching projects for internal use, you won’t be pressured to buy anything. You’ll also get insight into bad ideas or technologies that aren’t ready for prime time along with information about more promising innovations.

Rick Swanborg is president of ICEX and a professor at Boston University. Read more about innovative IT practices at