Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Innovation: How to be a World-Changer

Eureka and the modern manager: How important is innovation in business, really?

Management gurus might place a premium on blue-sky thinking, but just how high a priority is innovation compared to keeping things running smoothly?

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How important is innovation for executives, really? Image: iStock
Moving fast and breaking things might be the hacker code, but that doesn't mean the top IT execs will have the luxury of the same approach.

'Disruptive innovation' sounds exciting and dramatic, and few would argue that inventiveness has no place in a manager's skillset. But the reality is that CIOs often face many competing and contradictory demands. For example, there is the need to manage staff and suppliers effectively, to communicate with other execs and to keep the lights (and servers) on. So what priority do CIOs think they should put on blue-sky thinking in the context of these other pressures? Should the chief information officer rebrand as the chief innovation officer?

Perhaps not: when asked, "Is innovation the single most important quality of the modern CIO?" the TechRepublic/ZDNet CIO Jury of tech decision makers voted 'no' by a margin of eight to four.

For many CIOs it seems that while an aptitude for new ideas is useful, it's not the absolute top priority for a tech chief charged with keeping business-critical systems up and running.

Many skills required

As Mike McGavock, CIO at NeoHealth, explained: "Though highly valuable, being able to ensure day-to-day operations are stable, cost containment, and keeping up with trends are the most important."

Meanwhile Chuck Elliott, CIO at Concord University, argued that there are other qualities that CIOs need to have ahead of innovation: "CIOs need many skills that are common to modern executive leaders. I would argue that effective relationship-building skills are at the top of the list followed by other skills that contribute to one's ability to innovate such as strong leadership, communications, team-building, and organizational skills.

He added: "Innovation is certainly important, especially in strategic planning and emergency situations (which are hopefully rare), but it's not the single most important quality."

"Innovation is certainly important, especially in strategic planning and emergency situations (which are hopefully rare), but it's not the single most important quality."

— Chuck Elliott, CIO at Concord University

Similarly John F. Rogers, IT director at Nor-Cal Products, said innovation is just one attribute on a list for many needed by the successful CIO: "While it is important, I believe that it is a combination of skills including innovation that is important to a CIO today. Business acumen, technical knowledge, communications, vision and innovation need to work hand-in-hand to accomplish the tasks of today's CIO."

Gavin Megnauth, group CIO at Impellam, also said innovation is not as paramount as some of the other key skills that ensure the stability, integrity and security of systems. Coming up with new great ideas shouldn't be the responsibility of tech chief alone, he added.

"Depending on your view and the culture of an organization, innovation should be welcomed as much from the coal-face of the business as it is from the CIO. However, I would argue that the CIO is as well positioned to deliver innovation through technology transformation as anyone in the organisation through access to technology suppliers/industry peers. I would equally argue that it is politically advantageous to be the source of innovation to gain credibility as a broader business leader around the C-suite."

Innovation isn't particularly useful in isolation: doing things differently won't be valued by an organization unless it can be harnessed and connected to business goals. As Richard Frisch, CTO at Global Strategy Group, noted: "Innovation is valuable when it improves on existing or creates new revenue opportunities, or when it improves or replaces workflows, thereby reducing expense. By itself innovation is of no value to a CIO/CTO or his/her organization."

Gavin Whatrup, Group IT director at Creston, maintains that innovation is rising up the list of must-have skills for CIOs. "That said, innovation happens in IT departments every day; for example keeping data and systems secure whilst being used in ways beyond its original design. But that doesn't grab the headlines." He added that until it's more widely recognized, 'communication' should still be at or near the top of the list of priorities for CIOs.

"I have spent time in shops that would still be using typewriters if someone hadn't dragged them kicking and screaming into the digital age. And I have worked in shops where we were expected to be first to market with new products and technologies. Obviously innovation is far more important in the second scenario than the first."

— John Gracyalny, VP of IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union

And Michael Spears, CIO at NCCI Holdings, said that innovation can take many forms depending on the needs of the organization involved: "Although the primary context may be on creating value for customers, it depends what a company is facing at the moment. For one company, they may need to innovate on sourcing and retaining talent to meet business objectives. Another may have intense cost pressure. In that example, someone lacking innovation may just cut costs, and in turn cut value."

He added: "An innovative CIO would figure out how to cut costs and add value at the same time. Innovation should always be top of mind for a CIO."

For John Gracyalny, VP of IT at SafeAmerica Credit Union, it is more a question of how important innovation is to the CIO's organization.

"I have spent time in shops that would still be using typewriters if someone hadn't dragged them kicking and screaming into the digital age. And I have worked in shops where we were expected to be first to market with new products and technologies. Obviously innovation is far more important in the second scenario than the first."

Jeff Cannon, CIO of Fire and Life Safety America, said that while innovation might not be the most important attribute of the CIO it's "definitely top five. Maybe top three along with adaptability and communication."

Tom Galbraith, acting chief deputy clerk at the US District Court in the Southern District of Illinois, said that innovation as a concept is not only about technology.

"One can innovate in managing staff, communication and relationship development within the organization, and even keeping the lights on. These can all be accomplished with new and more effective means and ends," he said.

Galbraith added that this concept of innovation also lies right at the heart of the often-repeated dilemma facing CIOs: their difficulty in connecting with the business. "CIOs should innovate their way into the executive inner-circle of the organization, really listen and learn once they are there, and then use those relationships and that learning as inputs to their 'innovation quest'", he said.

Delano A. Gordon, CIO at Roofing Supply Group, said that it's a nice-to-have skill for the CIO, but that the application of innovation is more important than the idea alone: "There are countless sources of innovation all around us. I see creativity and the practical skill of putting together disparate, innovative solutions to solve business problems as most important."

This week's CIO Jury was:

  • Richard Frisch, CTO, Global Strategy Group
  • Dan Fiehn, Group Head of IT, Markerstudy Group
  • Delano A. Gordon, CIO, Roofing Supply Group
  • Tom Galbraith, acting chief deputy clerk at the US District Court in the Southern District of Illinois
  • Mike McGavock, CIO at NeoHealth
  • Chuck Elliott, CIO at Concord University
  • John F. Rogers, IT director at Nor-Cal Products
  • Gavin Whatrup, Group IT director at Creston
  • Gavin Megnauth, group CIO at Impellam
  • Michael Spears, CIO at NCCI Holdings
  • John Gracyalny, VP of IT, SafeAmerica Credit Union
  • Jeff Cannon, CIO of Fire and Life Safety America

Want to be part of TechRepublic's CIO Jury and have your say on the hot issues for IT decision-makers? If you are a CIO, CTO, IT director or equivalent at a large or small company, working in the private sector or in government, and you want to join TechRepublic's CIO Jury pool, or you know an IT chief who should, then get in contact.

Either click the Contact link below or email me, steve dot ranger at techrepublic dot com, and send your name, title, company, location, and email address.

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