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Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: How To Make IT More Agile

Ten ways to prime IT staff for innovation

Here are concrete steps that IT leaders can take to produce a steady stream of innovations that could lead to business and tech breakthroughs.

Image: iStock

IT is an innovation-driven discipline, with most of the innovation coming from tech vendors that robustly invest in research and development. When IT innovation is executed within enterprises, it can lead to breakthroughs that enable a company to be more agile, competitive, and profitable.

IT innovations that generate positive results

These examples were driven by enterprise business cases and through innovative efforts between enterprises and their vendors.

In some cases (the creation of a private self-service cloud, for example), innovation comes as a 'big splash' change, where users throughout the business immediately experience a new and faster way of getting IT resources. In other cases (streamlining nightly processing workflows with a new approach to processing, for example), the innovation isn't directly visible to the end business, but the business sees the results because systems are available for use much sooner than before. In both cases, someone in IT steps out from familiar ground to create a new approach.

  • Brick-and-mortar businesses have been augmented by even more profitable ecommerce storefronts;
  • Social media and project collaboration software have been implemented to link people in diverse geographic locations with each other;
  • Home- and field-based workers have been deployed into sales and customer service workforces through networking and mobile device technology;
  • Advanced networking and self-driving trucks enable companies to travel through remote areas of the world characterized by risky and rugged terrain without exposing human lives to danger;
  • Networks with high quality of service and failover enable a surgeon in New York to remotely control a surgical robot in the Arctic to perform an operation; and
  • Cloud-based services have enabled business users to request and receive IT services without having to wait for IT to respond.

Ten steps for meeting IT innovation goals

1: Identify innovators and non-innovators

If you want your IT department to welcome and reward innovation, a logical first step is to identify the individuals who thrive in an innovative environment, and those who are averse to it. IT needs innovators, but it also needs employees who are happy doing standard and even rote work, and who prefer to operate within the confines of the jobs they have been asked to do.

Most IT managers know who likes to innovate and who doesn't. Roles within the department should be assigned to capitalize on these different strengths.

2: Revisit job descriptions and evaluative criteria

IT job descriptions and how individual performance is evaluated should be revisited to see if innovation is part of those descriptions and criteria. IT managers usually discover that skills and tasks are evaluated, but not creativity. If the individual being evaluated is an innovator, then innovation should be added as an evaluative measure.

3: Foster an environment that encourages innovation

I once managed a manufacturing/IT team that created a prototype machine for semiconductor manufacture that blew up in the project staging area the first time around. The effort failed, but from it, we gained valuable insights about software and hardware, and we later ended up getting the project 'right' and commercializing it.

Creative efforts can be amazingly successful, but only if they are conducted in a culture that understands and accepts that failure can be a part of the process.

4: Know when to pull the plug

A manager at an analytics think-tank recently told me, "We often fail at the analytics postulates we are trying to prove, but we also have the experience to know when to pull the plug." Like this manager, the most progressive CIOs secure budgets for sandboxes, internal R&D, prototyping, and pilot projects -- but they also know how to divide experimental projects into smaller segments and when to pull the plug when work isn't progressing as planned.

5: Reward and give visibility to innovation

Outstanding IT innovations and innovators should be recognized with salary/bonus increases, personal acknowledgement, and any other rewards perks that companies might utilize. By continuously placing high visibility and value on innovation, CIOs let staff and the end business know that innovation matters.

6: Pair IT with end users

An interdisciplinary team of IT and end users often is the most productive forum for meaningful business innovation. End users understand the limits of their business processes, and IT brings technology to the table.

By combining efforts, business users and IT can solve issues like older warehouse workers having to walk miles of concrete aisles each day. The innovation in this case was to add robots that could "do the walking," while human workers managed the process and worked on more stationary tasks.

Would warehouse workers have recognized the potential of self-directing robots, and would IT have understood the legwork issues of walking warehouse concrete floors? Probably not independently of each other, but as a united force, they were able to innovate a new workflow that improved worker health and expedited warehouse fills of customer orders.

7: Team with universities

Striving to maintain relevant curricula for today's enterprise IT needs, many universities reach out to enterprises to collaborate on curricula development, and also on classroom and lab projects that students perform for credit. Universities are naturally research-oriented, so enterprises can often spin off projects in innovation for students to tackle.

The students and professors are happy because students are getting exposed to 'real world' work. The enterprise gets innovative projects done, and is in a great position to get to know students through enterprise internships that can lead to permanent employment.

8: Target innovative seminars and conferences

The most talented innovators on your IT staff should be given opportunities to rub elbows and exchange ideas with other creative IT innovators in your business vertical, or in their IT specialities. High-quality seminars and conferences that emphasize innovation are great sources for new ideas.

9: Present the case for innovation in the IT strategic plan

If upper management and other corporate stakeholders don't see innovation in the IT strategic plan, it will be hard to foster an environment that is conducive to innovation. It's up to the CIO to present the case for IT innovation in the business, to the business.

10: Remember that innovation can happen anywhere

The natural thought in IT is that innovation will surface in some new technology or application, but you might see it somewhere else.

For instance, a major tech company recognized that it had an ageing IT workforce, which it had to replenish. Every time an older IT pro retired, the budget that had been used to pay this older worker was placed back into a fund that was set aside for reinvestment into new IT talent that would replace the retiring employee.

This is innovation in the area of human capital growth and preservation, and a departure from what most companies would do, which is take the money and reallocate it so other corporate bottom lines can be met, and then never end up backfilling or reinvesting in new talent.