Q&A: Innovation and IT

In tough economic times, can IT afford to be innovative?

When times get tough, IT must get innovative – but where will new ideas comes from, and how will they be received? To discuss innovation and IT’s role, we spoke with Brian Ott, vice president of Global Services at Unisys Systems and Technology. In addition, Mr. Ott reviews key findings in a recent Unisys study of innovation.

Enterprise Systems: In tough economies, when IT budgets are cut, isn't time and money spent on innovation a luxury?

Brian Ott: No, the time for investment in innovation is when you are looking for creative ways to do more with less. As a CIO or CTO, it isn’t acceptable to just keep doing the same old things in the same ways. You must reduce your investment in the traditional “keep the lights on” activities and focus your spending on what adds value to your business -- the things that are innovative.

What examples of IT innovation have impressed you the most in the last 10 years?

Some of the most creative innovations have been in virtualization and mobility. Virtualization is one of the game-changing technologies in the data center. It has changed the way we think about consuming IT resources across the board. Virtualization gives you more flexibility in all aspects of your IT environment -- hardware, software, people, and processes -- than you could ever consider before.

On the mobility side, the capability for VOIP on a global basis along with Wi-Fi anywhere is also changing the way everyone uses technology. Many people have new expectations that “whatever I need, anywhere I need it, and on any device” is now the norm -- and that is driving more demands on the IT organization.

Where do you expect innovation to appear in the next five years?

I think a lot of the future innovation will be in Web 2.0 as well as in security. These are some of the critical dependencies where innovation is necessary to drive evolution to realize the true vision of cloud computing and a secure mobile world.

Resistance to change is likely the leading reason why enterprises don't get the most out of innovative ideas. What best practices can you suggest to overcome this resistance?

Innovation must become a part of “everyday life” in an organization. It should not be a special process or program. There should be expectations of continuous improvement that should drive innovation. There should be a very simple way to submit ideas and a process of evaluation and implementation that is easy, timely, and visible to everyone. There should also be some type of recognition given to innovators.

Where within an organization is innovation likely to come from?

Innovation can come from anywhere. I have seen some of the most innovative ideas come out of cross-functional teams that were self-formed and dealing with almost survival situations. Innovation shouldn’t be driven just by emergencies. It’s everybody’s job and should be part of the standard collaboration approach between IT and business functions. Many of the future ideas will most likely be ignited by people’s personal experiences with technology, which they will then translate into a more broadly applicable idea at work.

Does an enterprise need a culture of innovation for new ideas to be proposed and adopted?

Business or IT necessity can easily drive innovation even in a traditional low-risk or change-averse culture. Any organization certainly needs a commitment to be open to innovation.

Besides the direct benefit of an innovative idea (a new process can save operating costs, for example), are there other direct or indirect benefits that arise from such innovation?

Innovation that is widely implemented can be very motivating to people, and that creates many benefits. It makes the individuals feel that their ideas can make a real difference in the company’s business or for their customers. Applying innovation can also lead to a new culture with a more entrepreneurial spirit, which can make the company more competitive in the future.

I've seen many an organization kill innovation by using committees, where ideas wither. Is that your experience? If so, how should innovative ideas be solicited and accepted?

Committees, complex processes, and a lack of visibility will all inhibit innovation. Using social networking approaches and automation tools seems to work the best to capture the initial ideas. Some type of review/evaluation process is still valid and valuable to help drive investment and action, but it needs to be clearly understood and visible to work well. There should also be a commitment for action and resolution for all ideas that come through the process.

Unisys recently commissioned a study on innovation. What were some of the key findings you thought were most important?

First, where best practices or business management strategies are in place, they help drive innovation. Unisys research showed that use of these best practices is highest among companies whose IT organization is more involved in driving strategy and innovation. The best practices that respondents referenced included a development framework for consistent solutions delivery (34 percent), ITIL or ITIL-based initiatives (32 percent) and knowledge management techniques and tools in support services (31 percent).

Second, it’s worth noting, although not too surprising, the difference in the level of IT’s involvement with the business between smaller companies -- those with fewer than 500 employees -- and larger companies. For instance, within smaller companies, IT departments seem to be more involved in leading or co-leading innovation. We found that respondents at smaller companies were also more likely to report a higher level of interaction with the business and more open communication with the IT organization. Smaller companies were more likely to mention a higher quality of IT service as well.

All of these results indicate that a smaller company’s IT is more aligned to the business than in their larger counterparts. Whether large or small, though, companies cited good interaction with the business teams as important in stimulating innovation within IT through open communication, collaboration and positive interaction.

Third, 74 percent of the respondents indicated that they look for service and consulting vendors to demonstrate a commitment to innovation. They see those with that commitment as best able to provide insight into technology directions and high quality of service that can help their business.

What results of the survey surprised you the most?

We were most surprised at how different parties view the IT organization’s performance. The research indicated that corporate managers often view IT differently from the way that IT people view themselves. For instance, corporate management assigns higher effectiveness ratings than IT management does to areas such as introducing innovation -- that is, optimizing IT Infrastructure to meet business needs -- high quality and on-time delivery of products and services, and business and IT alignment.

Corporate managers are also twice as likely as IT managers -- in this case, 73 percent vs. 37 percent -- to rate redesigning the data center to become more efficient, cost-wise and space-wise, as critical or very important in enhancing the perception of IT as innovative.

Some of this is most likely related to the fact that IT views innovation in these areas as just a normal part of their job so it doesn’t stand out as being anything special. Plus, IT too often is forced into being reactive to dynamic business needs and can’t always take the time to consider an undertaking as complex as a data center redesign. On the other hand, corporate management is most likely focused on that kind of initiative as a key success measurement for their IT investments.

Another surprise was the respondents’ focus on both business and IT process improvements as key area where they saw a need for more innovation. The process redesign focus has come and gone in the IT industry numerous times but with limited success. The good news is that the tools and methods to address the process improvement and innovation needs are finally mature and relatively easy to use.