by Mary Brandel

Culture of Innovation Starts With IT

Dec 19, 20133 mins
CIOInnovationIT Leadership

The CIO of Altria, a consumer packaged goods company, says innovation requires a new mind-set in the IT department.

Altria, like many consumer packaged goods companies, uses innovation for competitive differentiation. Our company has a rich heritage of innovating products, processes and programs within our core tobacco business.

In early 2012, our new CEO challenged us to speed up this process by thinking of innovation as a total system.

Our information services (IS) team has always provided high-quality services. The question we began to ask ourselves was, “How can we use technology to help accelerate innovation for the company without sacrificing our service levels?” We immediately determined that we really had to look at the culture within the organization and find creative ways to help employees meet our CEO’s challenge.

We knew there wasn’t just one action we could take; we needed to look at all the roles, skills, processes and problem-solving approaches in IS. Partnering with an outside company, we developed a few creative ways to change our culture, using the motto, “Think different, work different, act different.” For instance, we now bring in speakers every quarter to provide an outside perspective.

One speaker discussed the evolution of the publishing industry, which inspired us to look for parallels in the consumer products industry; another was Douglas Merrill, the former CIO and vice president of engineering at Google, who talked about the culture of innovation in that company.

We’ve also set up an innovation room, featuring interactive learning stations that center on various themes, such as the importance of learning from failure. Another component is our “brain breaks,” where twice a month, employees get a two-hour block of time to discuss a particular idea with their peers.

A recent topic was “the magic of doing one thing at a time versus multitasking.” It gives them freedom from their day-to-day job to think differently and hopefully learn something they can apply in the future.

Lastly, we sponsor innovation challenges, where we take a business problem and give small, cross-functional teams a week or two to develop a solution. A recent challenge focused on using smartphones to enhance communication and mobility in a loud manufacturing environment. One team designed an app that provides a simple view of machine performance for manufacturing supervisors, which allows them to be mobile within the factory.

We also enabled unit leaders with earplugs to “hear” someone talking to them on the smartphone, using sensors that translate the words into vibrations that enter the ear canal. It’s a great example of looking at a problem differently and leveraging consumer technology.

We like to say, “It’s all about shooting bullets, not cannons,” which means focusing on small, low-cost investments that can be completed quickly before tackling large initiatives. We start by asking our business partners, “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” From that point, we look at different ways to solve the problem and present it back to them.

Overall, this holistic approach has been well received. As the company introduces new products and shifts into new markets, it’s energizing to see how IS is supporting innovation across the company. We’re nowhere close to being finished, but we’re pleased with the response.

Dan Cornell is vice president and CIO at Altria.

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