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The importance of communication in IT innovation

I recently was asked to participate in a panel discussion about the importance of communication in IT innovation at the Olin Innovation Lab, an annual event at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. Innovation means something new. There is probably more change — more “new-ification,” if you will — going on in information management and IT than in any other part of the business. In fact, I realized that for most CIOs, IT innovation is not a eureka moment but more like a standard operating procedure. Because IT is always changing, IT innovation is actually a pretty mundane part of the job for CIOs. You deal with it every day.

In preparing for the panel, I also realized that in the five years I have been covering CIOs, my own idea of innovation has changed. A word that I used to think had to do with some brilliant moment of artistic revelation or scientific revelation, now for me means something that is really part of a process. In fact, many companies I have talked to recently have begun to divide innovation into categories. Chevron is an example. It has occurred to me that each category calls for a different set of communication skills.

Selling IT innovation, listening and talking at cross-purposes

These innovation levels, of course, differ from company to company. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but here’s a sketch of three levels of innovation and the three types of communication each requires:

1. The first level of innovation is what I have dubbed “new for you,” or innovation by replacement. Here, the innovation is new for your company — for example, switching to a different email system to take advantage of a technical advancement or cost savings — but not new to the world or indeed to many other companies. Selling the value of the change is the critical communication skill here. (If you don’t, expect a lot of grousing.)

2. The next level up — and a more difficult type — is innovation that transforms the way work is done at your company: e.g., putting a process that involved humans, computers and perhaps off-site systems onto a digital “conveyor belt” so that this digital media can be accessed from multiple computers in multiple places. (Amtrak CIO Ed Trainor calls this IT transformation with a “big T.”) You have to understand the existing process well enough to change it, and that requires talking to a lot of people. So, while you also have to sell the value of change, the critical precursor to selling is listening.

3. The third type of innovations are those eureka — new to the world — inventions that change the way everybody works. Email was that. Smartphones. If you were lucky enough to be involved in one of these super-transformative innovations, you knew things that people in your industry didn’t ordinarily know. That kind of inventing requires hearing about many ideas: listening to people you wouldn’t ordinarily talk to, maybe even talking at cross-purposes. It requires a willingness to communicate outside your comfort zone.

Has your company developed a process for innovation? Also, if you’ve come upon a new way of doing things by connecting the unconnected, I would love to hear about it.