Driving Miss Innovation

Rosina Howe-Teo, director of IT and chief innovation officer at Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA), believes even back-end IT professionals are capable of creative thinking and will come up with inventive ways to use technology.

The "I" in your job designation doesn't quite mean "information", as it commonly does in most CIO titles. How did the word "innovation" come about?
When I first joined LTA in 1999, I was initially recruited as chief information officer. But a year later, the government felt it was important to be innovative and began embracing a new buzzword--innovation.

Most organizations then appointed people as designated innovators, but not to take it on as a fulltime role… it was more like an 'add-on' to their current job titles. LTA wanted to go beyond that and that's how I got my title as chief innovation officer (CIO).

Rosina Howe-Teo, director of IT and chief innovation officer, Land Transport Authority of Singapore


I'm not a civil servant by training. I come from the private sector and am therefore, an oddball in the company… I look at things differently and I ask different questions (from the norm). So they felt my views were refreshing, and the CIO title would give me the needed mandate to make changes, as opposed to my previous title as chief information officer.

But isn't it tough to get IT professionals, who are seen more as back-end staff, to be innovative?
I started out as a programming analyst, and I know IT professionals are very hardworking and are more than happy to work long hours. But when asked to write reports, they would rather work one week's worth of overtime.

So I wanted to get my staff out and to start communicating. I started an IT forum and weekly meetings where they get to present new ideas and projects to me and their peers, and then later to the company's users. Initially, I had to pose questions and they'll do the research from there. Now, they come up with the ideas, ask questions and research topics that I wouldn't even know about.

When the staff does an impressive job, you have to tell them so. To encourage innovation, you need to look out for people with hidden talent. There's no point giving someone a task if he's not made to accomplish such tasks. No amount of handholding would help so it's important, as an IT leader, to know and understand as many people as possible within your organization and outside your team.

Encourage the right people to take on leadership roles.

So what kind of advice would you give to others aspiring to be in your shoes, and who desire to lead IT projects that are successful?
First, you've got to be a visionary and you need to know what kind of organization you want to be. Then, view technology as a practical use… ask yourself how effective it is. It's really about how you use IT to solve your problems. When you take this approach, your staff will not be overwhelmed with the complexity.

How do you create the innovative angle behind the IT project? It's the scoping, the technology, the application of it and the packaging. Having a wide industry exposure helps. If you don't come from just one single environment or industry, and you're an observant person, having a diverse background will help.

And you recruit people from different background… I have staff with degrees in English Literature and Accountancy in my team. You don't always need to be technical… you need someone who speaks well, is able to understand the technology and who can explain the technology to the users.

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