Nissan's innovation culture comes from good basics

“Do the basics well and you will win a position from which you can then innovate,” a mantra heard in many CIO Profile interviews and at our CIO roundtable dinners. This mantra is not only true of CIOs, it’s true of any role and entire organisations.

One organisation that does the basics well and is now known for innovation is Nissan, the global car manufacturer that has an important position in the UK economy with its factory in Sunderland.

Nissancars have a reputation for reliability. When I first met my wife, she was the car owner in our relationship, that car was a Nissan_Sunny" target="_blank">Nissan Sunny. It wasn’t a work of art like an Aston Martin, nor was the most exciting car I’ve ever driven. But in the years she owned this car, it never broke down once, it barely used any petrol and was pain free. Much like a transformative CIO, Nissan had done the basics right, all the operational factors of running and owning a Sunny were spot on.

From that foundation of reliability Nissan has revamped its reputation to be considered one of the most innovative companies in the car business. And much of that innovation comes from the UK, take the Qashqai, the same name as an Iranian tribe according to Sebastian Faulkes’ James Bond novel. Designed, developed and built in Britain by a design centre in Paddington, London, engineering in the midlands and an incredible lean manufacturing plant in Sunderland.

Now Nissan is manufacturing the Leaf electric car in the UK. Electric cars are not all that new, what Nissan innovated was it created a realistic and credible electric car that’s about the same size as a VW Golf and a pleasure to drive I can report.

What both of these models have done is innovate entire market segments too. The Qashqai had sales increasing as the company phased the model out in place of a new Qashqai version. It’s possible this has never happened in car sales before.

Now with the appetite and set of successes under its belt Nissan will continue to innovate its CIO Stephen Kneebone told me. It already has plans for self-drive cars, new ownership models and ideas for how the retailing experience must change in motoring.

As an innovative company it can command attention and it certainly got people thinking when Chairman Carlos Ghosn told the Tory government that if the Conservatives pulled the UK out of Europe then the future of Nissan and the thousands it employs in the UK is in doubt. Considering the work the CIO and Nissan team have been doing on a new plant in Russia, I’d suggest the government should listen.

As it innovates, Nissan has on the whole managed to keep its reputation for doing the basics well, not only in the products it makes, but as our forthcoming profile of Kneebone shows in how the organisation operates. Recently it has begun the adoption of software-as-a-service and Kneebone is reviewing all levels of the infrastructure his team operates.

As a leader of the CIO 100 has said to me, organisations cannot have a Chief Innovation Officer, innovation is a culture, one that Nissan has and has thrived with. Organisations need to develop that culture and let the CIO hook into it and show where technology enables that innovative culture.

[Nissan signs Microsoft for CRM cloud computing]

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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