CIO role in innovation begins with foresight

In this transcript of a CIO Innovator Profile Series podcast, H.B. Fuller CIO Steven John discusses the CIO role in innovation, and how to create a culture of innovation.

Steven John is CIO of H.B. Fuller Co., headquartered in St. Paul, Minn. The global adhesives manufacturer is 120 years old, and has customers in 100 countries. Since joining H.B. Fuller in 2007, he has renegotiated a $150 million outsourcing contract and refocused his team and the company on core business functions while outsourcing non-core functions to several cloud providers. In this podcast, he discusses innovation and business needs that are shaping the technology in which H.B. Fuller is investing.

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A talk with Steven John

  • Internet Explorer: Right Click > Save Target As
  • Firefox: Right Click > Save Link As What do you think is the CIO's role in innovation?
My job as a CIO, like any other C-level leader, is to have foresight and ambition for the business. And foresight is the start of innovation. What worries me is that so much of innovation in business today, especially in the technology arena, takes place in what I would call "shadow IT." In other words, it's unknown to IT. There are business-led skunkworks projects, when what should be happening is for innovation to be facilitated and in some cases, even led by IT. So, the CIO needs to be out there, with the business understanding what they do and where they want to go, so that he or she can have foresight and ambition, and facilitate or even lead innovation with the business.

Do you think that 'shadow IT' is something that is happening more because of the cloud?
Actually I don't think so. I think that the business is actually leveraging IT around the cloud, much as they would in a merger, where they are using IT to really do the due diligence work to make sure that the cloud offering is appropriate, that all of the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted. And so I think [the cloud] has drawn [business and IT] together and placed business in the lead of those projects, as it should be.

How do you calculate the risks, benefits and return on investment of IT innovation?
For me it gets down to one word: differentiation. So much time is spent inventing what someone else has already invented. Not even improving on it, but just doing it because it's the way we've always done it, or we want it done our way instead of theirs. If you truly understand your business, your industry, your market, your competitors, then you get real clear about what can differentiate you in the marketplace. If you start with that, then you have a context for understanding and calculating risks and reward. If you can't show how [innovation] can differentiate your business, then it's not worth the risk, because there are no benefits and there is no return.

How do you get people involved in the process of innovation? How do you create a culture of innovation?
There are two ways. First you get IT engaged in the business so that there's no "shadow IT." Instead, you create an environment where there is business-led and IT-facilitated innovation. You need to make sure IT is there from the beginning so that we are not intentionally or unintentionally blocking innovation because we don't understand what the business is trying to do. And second, CIOs need to free up their departments so that they can invest time in the processes of innovation. There's an old saying, "If you are doing something that someone else can do, then things that only you can do are not getting done." This applies to IT. Too often we do what other people can do and in many cases, what others can do better than we can. And because we are doing things that someone else can do, then in today's resource-constrained world, something that only we can do, only an IT resource that truly understands the business can do, like innovation, isn't getting done. So, you have to create time, and you have to make it a priority.

What technology or trend is causing you to rethink how you operate IT?
Today's technology and particular cloud technologies free up IT departments to focus on innovation and to invest in what truly differentiates the business. So, instead of spending a year or two years with the majority of your IT staff implementing an HR system, you go to the cloud and you subscribe to Workday. And you can put in the new HR system in six months with a fraction of the resources. Or a CRM system, if you leverage in the cloud. Cloud is a higher level of outsourcing. You are not only outsourcing people, you are outsourcing processes and infrastructure. For the first time in the history of IT, IT can free itself from operational work so it can focus itself on transformational and strategic work.

Too often, operations acts as a black hole, and IT gets sucked into it and that's where we spend all of our time: in the back office, keeping things up and running. If we outsource that, then we can truly spend that time getting aligned with the business, understanding the business, and helping the business to grow and to become more profitable.

What business needs are shaping the types of technologies you are investing in?
The first would be reducing costs and focusing scarce resources on what truly differentiates the business. The technology that I think is really helping us there is the cloud, which allows us to work more closely with the business; and another way that we haven't mentioned is Platform as a Service. has what is referred to as, and that's a development platform that multiple businesses can tap into. Actually, there's an ecosystem around that where different businesses can develop apps and then share them with each other. You could leverage it for rapid prototyping, reducing costs, leveraging what other people have invented and customizing it for your environment. And so, you can truly get to doing things more quickly for the business, and less expensively.

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