Oh I See! Getting CIOs to view their jobs from a different angle

Jun 16 2013   10:13PM GMT

Is innovation on the CIO agenda?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Innovation has always been a mystery to me; I mean what triggers innovation, how do people come up with ideas that result in innovation, why do some companies innovate more than others, what enables companies to create an innovation culture. Most of the books on innovation do a wonderful job of justifying why some are more successful than others. Theories and postulations fail to tell us how to innovate in our frame of reference; their motherhood statements are rarely actionable.

Corporate innovation agenda manifests itself in many ways starting with Committees, working groups, posters and banners, award and reward schemes, various interesting sounding Japanese terms used to christen the initiative, what have you. When these do not deliver in the anticipated stupendous way, consultants are hired to review and propose a model presumably aligned to the enterprise reality. Many interviews and thousands of slides later no one is wiser on the way forward.

In the last few weeks I was bombarded by the need for innovation to be on the CIO agenda. These came from CIO surveys, research papers and opinions of a few vendor marketing pitches. The reference was to enable and support corporate innovation programs and at the same time also create an IT innovation agenda. The tall order revolved around deploying solutions that capture ideas, enable collaboration, allow progress visibility, all of which will turn the enterprise into an innovation factory.

The other part of the discussion looked at IT innovation which in turn should enable business strategy and/or growth. According to them, a combination of the usual suspect and hyped technologies should do the trick for every company irrespective of size or industry; if you are not doing Big Data, then you are missing out; if you do not use mobility solutions (or BYOD), then you are a laggard; you don’t have clouds? You must be joking, everyone does clouds, private, public or hybrid. The message does not look at business cases, but expects traction.

So where does the CIO stand in the corporate innovation agenda? Is s/he leading or participating in the program, or is the CIO a bystander? Where does IT if at all fit into the innovation drive? I started tracking the reality for the CIO and how they are dealing with this predicament to validate my reality. While I had no expectations, the answers in their candour surprised me. Very few had a different reality and I am not sure if they were trying to cover up. The overwhelming majority were quite clear.

In a large part, the innovation initiatives were created to counter some competitive force or pressure that hurt the business. Beyond the initial wave of ideas that delivered quick-win results, the programs did not live up to their initial expectations. All the buzz and hoopla died down after a few months or quarters, few lived to celebrate an anniversary. Where technology platforms were part of the design, the CIO enabled it and stepped out of the way. A few IT lead innovative business ideas brought them to the limelight which was good while it lasted.

Innovation and breakthroughs are rarely achieved using structured agendas; they flow out of creativity of individuals and teams working together. These can impact processes, products or services in big and small ways. Committees evaluating ideas are more likely to kill them than enable, so is the case with laborious processes to determine which ideas should be funded and which discarded. We all know this but play the game along when it is seeded in our companies.

Is the CIO really uniquely positioned to help further the innovation cause? The challenge is the enterprise wide acceptability of this position where every CXO wants to be associated with such a prestigious initiative irrespective of whether it delivers to promise. After all, no one wants to be not seen as not supporting innovation. Should the CIO fight to get his/her name stuck on? If you can’t beat them, join them appears to be the best approach for now. Do you have a different view or reality?

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