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IT And Innovation: A Natural Combination

Innovation has become the top watchword in corporate America, with companies trying to outdo each other by creating the “next, best” product or service. Hardly an organization exists that does not tout its ability to innovate. Even individual business professionals are marketing themselves as innovative: A quick glance on LinkedIn and other professional networks reveals the remarkable increase in the use of the words innovation or innovative in professionals’ descriptions of themselves.

Certainly, the emphasis on innovation is for the most part welcome. What confuses the issue, however, is the constant invocation of the term because it dilutes the power of real cutting-edge work. If indeed every company and every individual is innovative, then what does the word mean? And how can one separate the wheat from the chaff?

In order to get to a sensible place, it’s worth exploring what makes something innovative and what simply doesn’t allow for that claim. Let’s dispense with the easier subject, namely what innovation is not. Simply put, “doing your job” is not innovation.

Companies that release products and services that mimic the ones they have already had in market or that have fixed processes are, despite their rhetoric, not on the bleeding edge. Also, innovation and money-making should not be considered synonymous. Organizations that find new ways to make “ordinary” things or ones that always raise the quality bar can don the innovative mantle, but in my experience, they make up a small percentage.

So what is innovation? Dictionary definition aside, innovation is about the simultaneity of quality, speed, and originality as they manifest themselves in some usable set of artifacts. The combination of intellectual capital -- technical depth plus the constant application of newly acquired knowledge -- and process improvement is crucial here. Crucial too is the scientific method, relentless process of hypothesis, testing, correction, and improvement. All of this needs to be underpinned by a sense of urgency -- a relentless speed of trial, error, and production.

Now, I don’t know about you, but to me all of this sounds like the fundamental basis of a great IT department -- the part of the organization I have always thought of as the most innovative despite the common perception of IT as a static, reaction-bound organization that forces the organization into inertia.

[IT pros also are often seen by other departments as power mongers. Read why it's time to squash this stereotype for good in "Debunking The IT Control Freak Myth."]

In the best of cases, I see quite the opposite: IT is one of the few organizations that proactively works with customers (internal and external) every day and has a clear focus on empowering end users. From this focus comes a need to embrace change and reduce “time to value,” both necessary factors in the creation of a milieu of innovation. IT goes further- it puts its money where its mouth is by enshrining this customer-commitment with a set of SLAs by which it binds itself to real outcomes in clearly measurable time frames and doses.

This proactivity and speed, buttressed by a clear view of quality is the sine qua non of a culture of innovation: a relentless process of doing, testing, assessing, and improving. The IT department is one of a few of the organization that has incorporated this process into its very being.

Some examples of an IT-led innovative approach include many organizations’ commitment to continuous efficiency improvements through the application of bleeding-edge technology, the clear and open access many employees have to corporate data for decision-support, the speed of wireless and mobile-enabled work, and the deployment of lightweight cloud-based applications for all manner of productivity improvements.

As a non-IT person, I feel lucky to be the beneficiary of what I call “good IT.” For those people that work in organizations in which IT isn’t at its best, I urge you to make your voice heard so that IT is enabled to help you.

From what I've seen, when companies can leverage this IT culture and model in the service of their product and services development arms, they are innovative. When they don’t, they typically languish.

So, as against the grain as it might sound, IT and innovation are facets of the same gem. If you believe it, then make your voice heard by exporting IT’s innovative practices to the rest of the organization and by inculcating in your colleagues the culture of constant testing, questioning, tinkering, and improving. IT has a lot to teach the rest of the organization.