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

Ten innovative tools and strategies to achieve uncommon business results

Risk can be a major deterrent to innovation. Fortunately, these innovative tools and strategies have proven successful track records.

Innovative tools and strategies can pay big dividends for companies -- if the solutions and ideas are architected directly into the businesses.

These 10 tools and strategies for innovation already have successful track records. Some of these innovative methods use specific tools, while others are more strategic. All of these options can work if specific business goals for innovation are set, and employees are given an opportunity to apply the tools and strategies for innovative work.

1: Make the most of social media and collaboration

New HR software offers social media/collaboration tools that enable employees in different locations to collaborate on projects, to locate experts in the company who have special knowledge on the projects they are working on, and to apply for internal jobs and projects. The software empowers employees to take charge of their own career development, and enables companies to foster an active spirit of innovation and employee development.

2: Try creative financing for custom software development

Companies in the commercial software sector develop software that is standardized, although clients usually have some ways to tailor the software; however, the overall goal is to avoid developing custom software, because it requires additional time, effort, and money. Nevertheless, products must continue to be enhanced and expanded to remain relevant, and the average commercial software company spends around 15 percent of profits on R&D for new product development.

As an alternative and innovative approach, some software companies take custom projects suggested by their customers and build these custom requests into new modules of the overall software product. The customer agrees to fund the R&D costs of developing the new software in return for an early delivery of the software. Once the new software module is fully developed and saleable, the customer that initially funded development gets its investment back in the form of a commission on each sale to other outside customers until the entire upfront 'loan' is repaid. The end result for the funding customer is a free piece of software. The commercial software company saves the R&D cost.

3: Swap jobs

To enhance employees' understanding of the overall business, some companies opt to job-swap employees between departments. A good example is a job swap between an end business department and IT.

The IT staffer goes over to the end user department for a period of six to eight weeks to work in that department and to learn the business. The end business department staffer goes over to IT for the same amount of time to better understand the technology behind the business by actually working in IT.

The company gains because the IT employee comes back with an enhanced business understanding that enables him or her to be a more effective business analyst. The end business employee returns to his or her home department with an enhanced understanding of technology that can solve strategic and operational issues in the business.

4: Use the help desk to assess systems and operations

Often perceived as the dungeon of IT, the help desk is a place where new hires can learn the company's overall systems and apps before they move on to other areas of IT. But innovative IT departments use help desk data to assess the quality of the end-user experience and IT support on different systems and apps. They determine which software and systems are most problematic, often targeting these under-performers for replacement. They also use help desk input to refine their application development process, enabling them to turn out products that don't have the same pitfalls that cause users and IT distress.

5: Train and develop employees in-house

More companies are authoring their own internal courses on company systems, products, operations, regulatory requirements, and services. Employees can take courses and see video demos 24/7 over desktop and mobile devices at headquarters and in the field. The training and demos enable field service technicians to stay current on new products and on how to service them. In other cases, an employee might take a course that prepares him or her for a future promotional opportunity. These systems also give end business managers visibility of employee training progress, which lets them stay on top of the skills depth of the employee talent pool, and to see where the company is at risk for skills shortages.

6: Move to voice-based systems

Most companies relegate voice-based apps to the phone system, but voice can be enormously useful in operations that need to be hands-free to optimize their efficiency. One example of voice app innovation is the use of new hands-free headsets and battery-operated phone units that warehouse workers wear on their belts. The systems are voice-trained for each individual worker so they recognize the accents and voice characteristics of their users. Workers use the technology to converse with the system as they move from aisle to aisle and from shelf to shelf to fill orders. The voice-based commands are captured and digitalized so they can flow directly into the warehouse management system, which gives management real-time information on warehouse operations.

7: Build 'instant' applications

With today's high-speed application development demands, there simply isn't time for an application developer to know every detail about IT infrastructure, and learn how to incorporate it into an application. Some vendors are building 'instant' app tools (e.g. IBM BlueMix) that enable an application developer to select a target hardware/software platform for an app, and then point and click a mouse on an icon (e.g. a telephone), generating a voice-based app that runs on the target hardware/software. This rapid application development tool speeds apps to market and enables IT and end business employees to innovate and implement faster.

8: Get rid of the warehouse

Suppliers don't like storing excess inventory, nor do they enjoy paying for inventory distribution centers if they can avoid it. Some of these companies have reduced the number of distribution centers they use by creating 'moving inventory' on trucks that service their customers. If a truck in a particular service area needs a part, it contacts the nearest field truck with the part, which then reroutes to make the call.

9: Administer healthcare via video telemedicine

Several years ago, a salesman passing through a rural area on an interstate highway lost feeling in his arm and recognized that he was having a stroke. He pulled over to the side of the highway, dialed 911, and was immediately taken to a nearby clinic. The clinic didn't have the expertise to treat the stroke, but it had a telemedicine link to a major university medical center. A stroke doctor at the medical center got on the video link and coached the local team on what to do. Better yet, the university doctor was able to observe and interact with the patient on live video. Today, live video telemedicine delivers healthcare access and quality of care in rural areas that was never possible before.

10: Provide funding and profits for innovative projects

A commercial software company for the stock brokerage industry organizes 'stock clubs' for its application developers and gives them money to invest in buying and selling the different stock and bond products that the software is designed to trade. The process of being an actual buyer and seller aids software developers in understanding the brokerage business. If they lose the money the company gives them, the project is over. If they succeed, the employees keep the profits.

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