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Innovation makes CIOs business leaders, experts say

Business innovation is so rarely the domain of the CIO. It doesn't have to be that way.

What a loaded term innovation is.

It practically demands a certain level of genius. Business innovation evokes that single glimmering idea that transforms a business from a mere competitor into a market leader.

It is no surprise, then, that business innovation is seen at once as both a necessary and weighty task.

Such a lofty view of the term could be stifling innovation and keeping CIOs from claiming their proper role as innovation leaders, observers and analysts say.

But by setting more realistic goals and leveraging the company-spanning knowledge acquired by IT employees, CIOs can aid and lead a continuing slate of business innovation projects, they say.

"That's probably the single biggest thing people have got to get over is this notion that innovation is this very unique, disruptive thing," said Mark McDonald, Gartner Inc. group vice president of executive programs. "If I have such a narrow view of innovation, then what happens is that I don't do a lot of it."

How true. McDonald quotes survey results showing only about 23% of businesses have an organized business innovation and funding process. Only about 24% of IT departments do.

How CIOs can fit into business innovation

Do it in your department first. Make IT a place where innovation works. Hire fresh thinkers, go out in the business to see how it functions, establish partners in different departments and begin communicating ideas across the company.

Look at the data. You're storing it anyway, so dig into the business data, looking for trends that could show where it would be most beneficial to employ new innovation.

Learn the business model. "Think constantly" about how your business works, Forrester Research analyst Bobby Cameron writes.

Find value in your younger workers. Twentysomethings often have the freshest eyes and ideas. New to the industry, they may visualize an ideal situation that doesn't even exist -- yet.Source: Forrester Research Inc.

And only about 15% of businesses have innovation processes both companywide and in IT.

When business innovation is attempted, IT departments are "only involved in innovation in a cursory way," McDonald said.

Forrester Research Inc. vice president and principal analyst Bobby Cameron found last month that CEOs and CIOs are plenty practiced at talking about innovation as a top priority in which IT departments play a necessary role. CEOs, conceptually at least, understand the CIO's value in innovation.

But the words are apparently just that. In reality, business innovation is pushed to the side in favor of improving products and services. IT departments are not invited into the circle and instead remain the fix-it men expected to keep the business running from day to day, according to a report by Cameron.

Sticking your nose in

CIOs want to be involved. In his report Cameron cites a 2007 IBM study that found CIOs see technology as "significantly or profoundly" important in gaining competitive advantage. But only 16% of CIOs surveyed felt their companies were taking advantage of technology. More often, IT departments were charged with continued efficiency of established business practices.

So how can this be reversed? How can midmarket companies begin to see innovation as a daily process instead of a firm-changing revelation? And how can CIOs lead it?

By declaring realistic goals and then meeting them, said Bruce Barnes, president of Bold Vision LLC, an IT consulting group in Dublin, Ohio.

Barnes said CIOs need to put themselves at the forefront of business innovation by setting expectations and being honest about what it will take to achieve them. He said he sees an IT department not just as a backbone to keep a company running, but also as the area best suited to work across company lines.

"I think IT is probably the only place within the organization that if properly done has a pervasive view of all aspects of the organization," Barnes said. "Name one thing today that IT doesn't touch in a company."

McDonald echoed that remark, saying CIOs add "a connective tissue" to the innovation process. IT departments already have a ground-level understanding of what departments in the company do and how they work together.

All the better, McDonald said, to know in advance when innovation plans that may make things simpler and more productive for one department will just lead to a series of trip-ups for co-workers elsewhere.

But to shift focus to innovation, a CIO will need to make sure the ship can run without him, or at least without daily input. Barnes said it would be a grave mistake to jump into an innovation project without making sure an immediate subordinate can direct the daily IT work expected of the department.

Showing up

If innovation is to be seen as a long-term, regenerating process and not a single inspired accomplishment, it will need support from above. Cameron said "sustainable innovation" can happen only with "explicit desires and strategic guidance from top executives." To bring other executives on board, Cameron suggests CIOs invite them to help define what the business is capable of and what it wants to achieve, be that better operations or a deeper market penetration.

Four keys to leading innovation

Bruce Barnes, president of Bold Vision, offers the following suggestions to CIOs hoping to lead innovation:

1. Shape demand within the organization. Pare down ideas from "could do" to "should do." Actively focus on those projects.

2. Speak the truth. Set expectations and be honest up front about how long it will take and what it will cost.

3. Keep your promises. "It's third, but it's the first thing that will kill you," Barnes said.

4. Complete the projects. Emerge as a successful leader, garnering yourself more support from above for your next goal. --Z.C.

And in order to keep moving forward, CIOs (or whoever is taking a lead role in business innovation) will need successes to show the "base-level credibility" that will convince executives to keep supporting business innovation projects, Barnes said. He recommends whittling down the number of innovation projects to the few ideas most likely to be effective and successful. Following that, he said, set realistic, but firm goals and be honest about what resources will be needed.

Working successfully within those parameters should produce the results necessary to receive support and respect from above for a long line of projects, Barnes said.

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