A culture of innovation begins with line-of-business and IT teamwork

IT executives create a culture of innovation by focusing on information before technology, and fostering line-of-business and IT teamwork.

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IT innovation is a great idea, but how does one get from here to there? CIOs say it has more to do with information than with technology, at least in the beginning. Information not only is the key to designing better products, but also results in better business processes. What's required is that departmental, line-of-business and IT teams work together.

Creating a culture of innovation begins with bringing these different groups to the table to document existing processes and discover where they overlap or could make use of shared efficiencies. The trend is toward lean operations, which are made possible by a shared consciousness of how best to get there. Lean principles even dictate that representatives of the various organizational limbs meet in the same room.

Lean operations can reduce costs by identifying redundancies in business processes and potential interactions that could delay progress, but innovation is achieved when those collective minds come up with a better way to deliver what the customers want -- or what the business requires.

Consider, for example, the weeds growing around the transmission towers owned by American Transmission Co. (ATC), which transmits power to five states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. Its CIO, Steve Dykstra, is responsible for not only information and technology, but asset management and compliance with government regulations as well.

"We have over $2.5 billion worth of assets in the field," Dykstra said: "There is a lot of maintenance. … [V]egetation management is a unique niche of that process, where we can't allow anything to grow into the lines and short-circuit the lines," or else ATC will have to pay steep fines to the government.

IT innovation solves an age-old problem

With hundreds of miles to cover, it's difficult -- if not impossible -- for ATC's field technicians to keep tabs on the brush surrounding every tower. One potential solution, Dykstra noted, is a mobile device -- perhaps a tablet -- equipped with ATC's network applications as well as global positioning satellite technology and a camera. With this setup, a technician could take a picture of the weeds, or just point the tablet at them and see whether the landscape is in compliance on that day.

How are we going to … allow our employees to actually generate good ideas, and how are we going to make them happen within the company itself?

Harry Pickett, executive vice president and CTO, Manulife Financial Corp.

To develop such innovative ideas, Dykstra brought together what ATC calls a tiger team: three individuals who look to improve the asset side of ATC's business. Most of the company's growth will be in new transmission tower construction as its territory expands. This particular IT team, which reports up through the construction department, includes a corporate cybersecurity consultant, an enterprise architect and "kind of an unusual third person in the mix," he said: a person who manages the asset data and geographic information systems' records.

"He tends to think more outside the box, more innovatively -- the type of  mind-set that really brings value to the organization," Dykstra said of the data manager, who also is closer to the construction side of the business than IT is.

"Without a creative mind-set, I think you limit yourself sometimes to a less effective contribution, because you tend to get myopic in regard to what you're really trying to accomplish from a pure technological solutions standpoint, rather than listening again to the business," Dykstra said.

Manulife puts everyone on the innovation team

Some teams are larger than others. Whereas Dykstra is going with a trusted trio, Manulife Financial Corp. has created centers of excellence to innovate across 17 major lines of business. The company's IT budget is between $850 million and $1 billion, according to Harry Pickett, executive vice president and chief technology officer at the Toronto-based insurance and financial services company.

Pickett's plan is to create an environment that allows everyone in the organization to be innovative. "I don't believe that an innovation team or somebody's going to have a monopoly on good ideas," he said. The question is, "How are we going to make that whole experience in Manulife to allow our employees to actually generate good ideas, and how are we going to make them happen within the company itself?"

Pickett now is focused on setting up the underpinnings for that to happen. Manulife has a Notes email platform, and has formed its centers of excellence around certain disciplines, such as outsourcing.

"We have core skills in our company around outsourcing management because about 90% of our infrastructure is outsourced," Pickett said. That outsourced infrastructure includes networks and application development. "I'm using that as an example where we bring people together, and we're pretty innovative around how we do contract management, actually brainstorming what things should go in the contracts."

As such organizations as Manulife come to realize that whatever industry they're in, they're really information technology companies, it makes sense to bring a broad spectrum to the table for some innovative IT teamwork. Large or small, such groups inevitably show that more brains are better than one.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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