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IT innovation requires managing the rogue as well as the entrenched

The I in IT is getting a lot more respect among CIOs who recognize their fiber optic networks aren't sending just bits and bytes, but digital knowledge. Making sure that people get and share critical information leads to fresh perspectives about business processes, new ways to satisfy customers and IT innovations that advance business goals.

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But whether IT stands for information technology or innovative teamwork, what's missing is the letter P: People are the engine for IT innovation. The first rule of thumb, according to CIOs, is to open the thought process and welcome representatives from across the enterprise. Doing so has two benefits: It takes IT off the hook for having to come up with all the answers, and it broadens the CIO's vision of -- and for -- the company.

Bear in mind there's a new generation on the IT innovation team

Just how an IT innovation team interacts depends on who comes to the table, according to Harry Pickett (above), executive vice president and chief technology officer at Manulife Financial Co., based in Toronto.

"A lot of the newer kids … they don't do things the way we used to do," Pickett said. "There's a saying out there: 'They're coming from my world, my way,' which is the way they're dealing with devices. When you're dealing with a financial services company -- at least when I was a kid -- it was their world, their way," he said.

Somewhere between those two scenarios is the new reality, because neither Manulife nor any other financial services company is going to open its assets, data and data fields to just anybody to do anything with it, Pickett said. Within the financial services industry, as in health care and insurance, there are regulatory issues surrounding privacy, and "you have to be very conscientious about the impact of what you're doing," he said.

Collaborative innovation can be driven by technologies as commercial as instant messaging, as corporate as IBM's Notes, or as flexible as cloud services like Constant Contact. Methodologies for team interaction can range from weekly conference calls to a dedicated room where the walls are decorated with visuals created by participants from every nook of the enterprise.

Manulife chose the Notes platform to set up centers of excellence to share expertise across its 17 lines of business. "We're really starting to look at the talent required to do an innovation and creative agenda … and [at] the skills we want to retain within the organization itself," Pickett said.

Two questions any IT innovation team should ask, Pickett said, are these: "What are we actually trying to accomplish with our innovation?" "What skills do we believe are going to change within our company?"

In IT innovation, get everyone onto the same schedule

It's not enough to get everyone on the same page, according to Will Showalter, CIO at the Sisters of Mercy Health System, a St. Louis-based network of hospitals and physician offices spread across four states. It's critical to get everyone onto the same schedule, especially when they're implementing an innovation like Mercy's patient portal.

What are we actually trying to accomplish with our innovation? What skills do we believe are going to change within our company?

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

"Every organization gets routed into existing patterns of practice," Showalter said. Enterprises embarking on an IT innovation need to ensure that the internal organization is ready for "the new patterns of business," he said.

The challenge Showalter encountered with his team was "for everybody to understand where the patient is coming from." The aha moment occurred when the company realized that an e-visit can be just as productive as an office visit, and that oftentimes what the patient needs and wants is information, he said.

Showalter's goal is for Mercy Health to operate at a consistent level of care and clinical quality, regardless of whether the patient is located in a city or a rural home. The new patient portal is connected to a patient's medical record, and is the conduit for a patient's interaction with health care providers.

Mercy Health's portal gives patients the ability to schedule appointments and delineate activities, things that in the past, they had to do over the phone, Showalter said. The portal also will provide wellness information from both clinical and holistic viewpoints, and will interface with insurance companies.

This IT innovation probably will save the health care organization money. That outcome, however, pales in importance compared to another one: helping Showalter achieve his personal goal of using technology to help save the world.

"Ultimately, we want our patients to know they own their health," Showalter said. "We want to help them through illness, but whether it saves us money or not is immaterial."

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

This was first published in April 2011

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