Stifling IT innovation

When the board says, "Be more innovative", many CEOs turn to their CIOs. Requests for innovation also come from other departments after they hear about new technologies from vendors or trade magazines. As a result, many IT organizations are being told to be more creative, and articles stating that the CIO should become the "chief innovation officer" abound.

If IT doesn't provide some of the innovations requested, other departments may look elsewhere. Many vendors are only too willing to bypass the CIO and sell to other executives directly. These sometimes haphazard technology additions may include products that are harmful to the company's infrastructure. In addition, they may be installed without adequate consideration of compliance requirements, architectural integrity, documentation needs or security and backup issues.

But industry changes in recent years have made it increasingly difficult for most IT organizations to innovate.

First there are political and financial pressures. Y2K efforts consumed massive financial resources without providing many visible benefits. (Disaster prevention is a thankless job.) As a result CIOs were forced to cut virtually all discretionary spending. That funding has been slow to return to most IT budgets.

Another one is outsourcing. While outsourcing has many benefits, it often results in brain drain. Many innovative developers go elsewhere.

Then there is laser business focus. Successful executives require the use of business cases to ensure that projects will meet corporate business needs. But an overly heavy focus on provable, quantifiable ROI frequently discourages funding those "creative leap" projects that are often necessary for breakthrough innovation. For example, ATMs originally showed very low ROI and were considered a financial risk.

Then there are re-engineering failures. Re-engineering can generate creative and innovative solutions to problems, but spectacular failures have put them on the backburner.

And finally, it is the nature of IT. Delivering and supporting IT capabilities in today's business environment requires more logic, discipline and attention to detail than creativity. For example, an effective systems development methodology requires compliance, not innovation.

Unfortunately, today's IT organizations are often not structured to innovate effectively. Unless your company is willing to foster a creative environment, employ appropriate staffers and support the creative process (both politically and financially), innovation will be stifled. Be realistic about what innovation requires. It's hard to leverage what you don't have.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Leverage Partners