Do CIOs need to take innovation seriously?

Despite the clear need for UK companies to innovate, the term has become over-used. Indeed, as the economic performance of the UK went down, so it seems the use of the word innovation went up — almost as if it is some kind of rescue remedy that can be taken as and when needed.

Over the past five years, innovation has become an almost compulsory element of management speak and management planning. It brings to mind the excellent but cringe-worthy Martin Lukes, author of Who moved my Blackberry?, and his CreovationTM concept — a ghastly portmanteau of creativity and innovation.

However, when the call from the CEO comes to be more innovative, there will be senior management executives who are wondering exactly when they are supposed to find the time to do so, while trying to manage the day-to-day challenges of staying afloat.

These are the same management teams that have spent a great deal of time making the organisation more efficient — only to be told by innovation gurus that efficiency can inhibit innovation.

Some CIOs have built a career on playing a leading role in their organisation's innovation programmes; others remain cynical about what it is or indeed how useful it is. We like this extract from the blog of John Suffolk, the former UK government CIO:

"So in late 2006, early 2007 I got to learn how innovators really work. First of all they give you snippets of what they are up to.

- "Oh we are just thinking of putting No 10 Petitions online, all right boss?"
- "That thing I mentioned to you a little while ago it's going live, nothing to worry about..."
- "Oh you know that little innovation we talked about, it seems to be causing a bit of a stir."
- "I need to go and see Ministers."
- "You need to go and see ministers."

And then over your port and lemon or snowball one night you read the national news headline: "Which prat thought this up?" Should you get angry or pat them on the back and say right now dream up something else?"

Despite the undoubted, and sometimes justified, cynicism, yes — CIOs do need to take innovation seriously.

However, it is advisable to avoid getting caught up in the many definitions and pseudo philosophies that have come to surround the whole topic. Instead, focus on trying to understand the characteristics of the organisation you work for, and therefore how IT can best support that type of organisation, such as by selecting, refining or reselecting the most appropriate tools or by choosing the right suppliers.

Importantly, you need to understand how your workforce operates in order to maximise engagement and collaboration among employees.

- How resistant are staff to inter-departmental ideas exchange?
- How comfortable are staff with using different types of collaboration tools?

After all, there is no point making investments and setting off in one direction if neither of these support what your organisation is ultimately capable of achieving.

In the very least, you need to have a clear view of how serious your organisation's approach to innovation actually is. This can, however, be more difficult than it sounds as there are instances where leaders say one thing but are in fact not prepared to make all of the required commitments.

Like any other business function, you have finite resources, so it is worth making your own assessment of the degree to which your organisation's aspirations to innovate should impact your IT strategy.

Our view is that organisations should be addressing four main areas to ensure the success of attempts to be more innovative:

- Tools
- Processes
- Strategic direction
- Funding and investment

Without all of these in place, it would be very difficult to run a successful innovation programme. If your Board is not committing to all four elements you should be very wary about whether the call to innovate is more than just management lip service or naivety.

The diagram below outlines these four areas, with the grey shaded section showing the prime role CIOs play:

Source: K2 Advisory

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