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IT as a Innovation Partner in Business

Usually in Business organizations and especially in organizations where R&D is a separate department itself a tension persists on keeping the IT department away from any decision when it comes to innovation or process improvement. In short the IT department is generally seen as less of a help and more of a hindrance to innovation efforts. One of the main reasons is traditionally information systems are designed to impose structure on process, achieve pre-defined goals, produce metrics and minimize need for human interaction (in some case over maximize human interaction leading to nothing but "meetings").

While Innovation activities are highly unstructured and emergent, IT cannot be ignored or kept in isolation because IT can help in visualization tools, data mining efforts, uncover hidden relationships between data and create tools of knowledge management/information repository that so desperately is needed cross functionally but especially by the innovators within a organization. An organization that integrates IT and the innovation department to make Innovation 'IT enabled' brings a different level of empowerment to the organization.

Components of a IT enabled innovation department for a business organization consists of three components.

1) IT-enabled organization capabilities: This relates to combining IT assets (data, infrastructure and expertise) with non IT-assets (such as creativity of innovators, technological sophistication of top management,  ote enable the across-the-board business processes essential to developing and applying innovations.

2) Secondly organizations need a strong set of IT-based tools to effectively sustain the central activities required for innovation and to support the analytical & statistical work that scientists, business innovators, engineers and designers need to transform ideas into products, processes or services.

3) Finally organizations need a system of "Control" that allows innovation workers to access and use the IT resources effectively and follow a framework that is standardized as well as in some cases is flexible.

Historically research has documented that innovation can come through diverse quarters of an organization if encouraged appropriately consisting of individuals or teams drawn from geographically diverse pool of knowledge. This can be facilitated by bringinh IT in cross business linkage for input, recommendation and metric measurements against the standards of a implemented framework and also at the same time be flexible with variances coming from the innovation quarters. In practice however IT departments are usually seen as one lacking creativity and favoring standardization. I understand this as it helps in maintenance, reduce costs and improving the operational flow of IT support processes. So how then can we achieve a balance. Here are some suggestions:

Some ways to bridge this gap is bringing IT specialists on board the R&D or process improvement  teams and innovation meetings, another way is make IT specialists responsible for innovation-success metrics. For example firms like Du Pont and Archers & Daniels have their R&D department regularly interface with IT on tools they want to procure with a variance report from the organizational standard of Tools pool. IT then takes the requirement, analyzes the variance but is ever careful not to step on R&D effort to contribution and makes the approval process a collaborative effort. Interestingly these organizations have a VP of Innovation and on the organizational chart VP of innovation has a dotted-line reporting from the CIO.

My observations after reading lots and lots of case studies in varied industries in most cases - is an absence of innovation-facilitating IT governance practices a reason at the root of the problem. In practice some organizations put significant IT resources in the hands of business innovators or R&D, in some there is no IT resources allocated, in some it is shared resource working in isolation. It is here that IT Governance becomes of paramount importance in getting technology to be partnering innovator in the innovation process. The idea here is the specific mode of control (Governance) is not as important as its capability to facilitate routines and policies for addressing innovator's requirements and meeting those requirements for the overall benefit of the organization and its customers.

Thoughts on IT-enabled innovation.

Sam Kurien.

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