Companies must innovate or die -- here's how IT can help

IT can provide the technology and tools to help foster innovative ideas across the organization. Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo

We all know the pace of digital change is wreaking all sorts of havoc across organizations, but how can IT pros use their technological knowledge to help smooth the transition and prevent their companies from becoming a casualty?

I recently spoke to Forrester analyst James McQuivey at the E2 Conference in Boston. He's the author of the book "Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation," and he says a big part of this change is coming up with ideas to think differently about tasks.

He uses the toothbrush as an example. We wouldn't normally think of it as a tool that's open to digital disruption. But consider putting the toothbrush inside a sleeve that monitors how often you brush, how long, what spots you miss and so forth and communicates this data to your dentist. Suddenly you have a "smart" toothbrush, and it can transmit useful data.

McQuivey says just about anything can be disrupted in this fashion, but organizations need to think creatively, and be prepared to discard a lot of bad ideas before finding the few gems.

"Imagine the company as an environment of untapped ideas in the heads of employees," he told me.

The trick is to create a mechanism to share these ideas. Otherwise, he said, it's just wasted capacity. Creating a digital process isn't magic, but you have to put a process in place to pitch ideas or you'll never hear about them.

He suggests you begin by framing it in the form of a problem you are trying to solve. That gives your employees some parameters to consider the nature of the problem and ways to solve it in a digital fashion.

"The number one thing is that companies are more successful [at innovating] when they give employees a specific problem. Here's our tool. Submit everything to change it or do it better," he said. McQuivey said once the ideas start flowing, some will be good and some will inevitably be irrelevant.

But like any process, you have to be sensitive to the ideas you reject, and explain why you rejected them and that the idea simply didn't fit into the parameters you were looking for.

The trouble is, so many companies are afraid even to begin a conversation. McQuivey says that comes down to simple human risk aversion and fear of change. "It's a proven element where people fear loss disproportionately to what they expect in gains." That's what makes it so hard to break organizational inertia.

Companies also need leadership, and it's not always easy for a CEO to lead the charge to change when he or she is just trying to please shareholders from quarter to quarter, but McQuivey said everyone is beginning to recognize the need for industries to change due to disruptive forces. There is no ROI if you don't exist anymore.

McQuivey also says it's a mistake to ghettoize this type of change management under the umbrella of a Chief Digital Officer or some similar title. He believes it needs to be a change in organizational mindset, not the job of one individual or department.

There is clearly a major role for IT in fostering this discussion because IT understands technology, and while technology is not itself necessarily the answer to disruption issues, the right tools can help facilitate dialog and smooth the inevitable changes that are coming. Some ideas you might try include:

  • Building modern communications systems to discuss these ideas. Enterprise social tools, for instance, can be a driver of these types of discussions and provide a way to generate and filter ideas while flattening hierarchies to move the discussion forward.
  • Fostering this type of innovation by offering the building blocks for ideas, such as developing a set of security services, for example, for your mobile app developers to speed up the development process so they don't have to rethink security for every app.
  • Offering a private cloud menu of services that offer tools like a SharePoint site for sharing files and ideas or a LAMP stack ready to go for developers to sandbox ideas.
  • Making deals with companies like Amazon or Rackspace for server, hard drive and other computing resources where people can test ideas and scale them if they become successful.
  • Encouraging the use of mobile devices and cloud services, and building mobile tools that facilitate idea sharing.
  • Crowd  sourcing ideas and setting up small groups to vet the best ones.

Whatever you do, do something because one thing is certain: The pace of change is relentless, and organizations need to build mechanisms to cope with that change. IT can help smooth the process by providing tools to promote idea generation and nurture the best ones.

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