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CIOs: Innovation starts with good ole-fashioned communication

Innovation is the term du jour for CIOs, but figuring out the best ways to foster creative, out-of-the box thinking isn’t easy. Maybe that’s why there was an entire session devoted to it at the recent Society for Information Management (SIM) annual conference.

“Accelerating Value with Social Media Led Innovation,” presented by Gartner Inc.’s Christopher Sprague, billed itself as a social media session but, in truth, it could have just been a called a social session. That’s because the real crux of generating new and interesting ideas, it seems, boils down to good ole-fashioned communication.

Here are five quick ideas from Sprague’s session on how to get that communication going.

1. Create a culture of innovation: It starts with leadership. An attendee from a large pharmaceutical company shared how a new president of research and development tied innovation, new ideas and new science to survival. In other words, innovation needed to become part of the department’s DNA. “We started by defining how we wanted to build that culture,” the attendee said, and, once defined, how to help support that culture. A notable aspect of support: the best ideas were backed by financial investment.

2. Talk horizontally and vertically: The “if you build it, they will come” IT Hail Mary doesn’t work. Getting IT together with the business just to talk, on the other hand, can generate good ideas. That’s precisely how one SIMposium employee described overcoming the barriers of siloed, top-down communication. “Once you bring people together to talk horizontally, that’s what sparks the ideas,” he said. The danger here, he noted, is falling into a trap of all talk and no action; employees need a way to funnel their ideas into the hands of decision makers. “If it stays with the worker bees, it never gets sponsored,” he said.

3. A catchy name helps: IT employees at Computer Aid Inc. call it “Future Fridays.” That’s when 16 or so IT thought leaders — a mix of idea generators and builders — spend an hour brainstorming. The program turned out to be so successful that the IT department built a formal framework for the submission and evaluation process, and prizes were awarded to the best ideas. Future Fridays is about a year old now, and in that time 400 ideas have been submitted and about 100 of them have been implemented, a Computer Aid employee said.

4. Get down and dirty, if you have to: Sometimes, communication can be the biggest impediment. Personalities clash and people disagree and getting everyone in a room together for an hour of idea generation just doesn’t work all that well. That’s why one SIMposium attendee advised doing the unthinkable: Take the people who don’t get along and turn them into office mates. Getting through an hour-long meeting is one thing; sharing an office is another. “We took our director of supply chain and he got an office with the plant manager of one of our manufacturing facilities,” she said. “What we started to see were real results because they had to ‘live’ together.'”

Gartner’s Sprague could see the wisdom in the decision: “Bad behavior permeates the cycle. … The stone throwers have to [realize] at some point if you don’t play socially, well, you’re not in the game.”

5. Crowdsource the problem: Here’s where the social media part comes into play. Think about third-party platforms from companies such as InnoCentive and Kaggle to overcome technical challenges or roadblocks. There, businesses can post problems for a community of analytics and tech junkies to grind through. Not comfortable making proprietary data public? InnoCentive, for one, has a Software as a Service option so that businesses can bring the platform in-house and use it internally.

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