IT-Driven Innovation: Not as Easy as You Think

  By Paula Klein, TechWeb

It would seem that all an IT team has to do is snap its fingers and innovation happens. After all, these are the best and brightest technologists in the enterprise working on leading-edge systems and devices that should bring the business into new, uncharted territory. Why, then, is it actually so hard?

Optimists say IT-driven innovation can happen with the proper funding, focus and, most importantly, support from the top levels of the organization. And, they say, the trends are encouraging. “Even now, in this economy, companies are starting to better understand the value of IT to support corporate strategies,” says Mark Chun, associate professor of information systems, at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management. “Companies ‘get’ that IT’s job is to innovate, not to be back-office data crunchers anymore,” he says.

Nevertheless, technology alone isn’t the ticket to business innovation, Chun says. “People, processes and technology form a three-legged stool; if one is missing, it won’t stand.” Chun is trying to teach these lessons to the next generation of IT leaders in his MBA program. “I tell them that innovation can happen when things are working just as when things are not working; that’s when there’s an opportunity for change and improvement.”

Like Chun, CIO Randy Gaboriault, at Christiana Care Health System, views innovation as “a novel way to solve an existing problem.” The company, named one of the top 20 innovators on the InformationWeek500 list this fall, focuses “on continuous improvement; that’s the corporate culture and the fabric of the organization,” Gaboriault says.

Gaboriault says IT’s job at Christiana Care is “to put wind in the sails” of the organization so it can reach its goals. “We challenge ourselves to think differently, to reduce friction points between patients and the flow of information.” To do this, the IT team has to really understand the business, he says. They can then build relationships to “transform health care.” That’s very different than just throwing technology at a problem, he says.


Solving Pain Points

“We encourage people to go ahead and try out their ideas and solve pain points,” Gaboriault says. For example, when patients had to sit in waiting rooms to fill out pain assessments on paper forms, errors were introduced and time was wasted. Together with medical and front-desk staff, IT built an application to automate the process, according to Gaboriault. Patients can complete the questions much more quickly — in three to four minutes instead of 15 — and the information is integrated into charts in real time so that staff can assist a patient who is stuck on a particular question. This eliminates incomplete or missing data, too. In addition, trending graphs show clinicians changes in patient symptom intensity over time. The application, called Insight, is provided on a tablet PC, Gaboriault says, and the patient uses a stylus to interact.

Taking an organizational approach to innovation is something that Microsoft embraces as well: “Successful innovation is more than just invention,” says Tony Scott, corporate vice president and CIO at Microsoft. “True innovation must also support organizational performance, either by directly contributing to revenue growth or by delivering new efficiencies that help improve a business’s competitiveness.” (For more on Microsoft innovation strategies, see the blog post Microsoft on Innovation: Support Organizational Performance.)


CIOs in the Hot Seat

CIOs are clearly in the hot seat when it comes to delivering innovative ideas, products, processes and technologies to their businesses — and sometimes just moving the needle a little goes a long way.

Robert Fort, senior vice president, application services, at Guitar Center, and a former IT executive at Virgin Entertainment, says that CIOs really need to examine their leadership style. Being an integral part of the business team is basic, but beyond that: “Can you quote business statistics, proactively identify the CEO’s pain points and solve them? Too many CIOs just react,” he says.

At Virgin, IT used its knowledge of the business to help the stores introduce digital listening stations — among the first in the industry. And, at the Guitar Center, Fort has no problem accepting ideas from elsewhere in the organization. Businesses are moving so fast that collaboration is necessary, he says. In retail, a customer experience officer may oversee online operations and social media for better customer satisfaction. As long as it benefits the customer and the company, you have to let go of ownership sometimes, Fort says.

Even the idea of managing innovation may be too restrictive, Fort says. A better approach is creating an environment where IT professionals feel safe to experiment and innovate. “You can’t throttle IT; you have to encourage it,” he says.

Gaboriault at Christiana Care says it is possible for IT to break new ground and to drive major business innovation. “IT touches all parts of the business — transactional and informational — to drive change in the value stream.” And although “not all problems are IT problems,” he says, IT can help create processes and solutions to move the business ahead.

Comments (1)

  1. Paula Klein says:

    Interesting article by Booz & Co. on the importance of corporate culture on business innovation here: THE GLOBAL INNOVATION 1000: WHY CULTURE IS KEY…/11404

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