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The art of driving innovation on a shoestring

The art of driving innovation on a shoestring

Over the last year, many enterprises have struggled to deliver big, transformational IT projects. While these big projects may satisfy corporate aspirations to be leaders in innovation, the real test is not the size of the project, but the outcome it delivers.

Innovation is clearly one of the hot topics for today’s CEOs and industry leaders. The rationale is clear and sensible. Indeed, a number of sectors such as retail and publishing have already discovered the tough realities of a changing market. Corporate directives can sometimes send mixed messages. Be innovative. Take risks. Cut costs. However, don’t touch core services, and if you stuff up you’re dead! Textbook advice on innovation is an excellent starting point, but it can only be a starting point. Each enterprise must confront the need for innovation within the context of its own business realities.

Future plans must involve more creativity, but this must be moderated by a cash-poor environment. The IT function is caught between the need to deal with wafer thin budgets, and the need to deliver greater innovation. Gone are any ideas of big R&D budgets. This is the time for the shoestring innovator.

Idea generation is an important foundation, but don’t overdo it

Innovation cannot survive without a constant flow of ideas. These ideas must cast a critical eye over accepted business practice. Ideation theory provides a wealth of practical information about idea generation and assessment, and is a fast maturing as a powerful management tool.

Many emerging methods of idea generation are delivering promising results. These include corporate blogs, the posting of online challenges, and the creation of competitions to engage the creativity of young talent. The small business sector is also fast emerging as a source of skills to fill ideas gap. Small business has the advantage that it can react quickly to changing circumstances, while still giving enterprise managers a level of comfort by engaging through traditional contractual arrangements.

Some enterprises continue to dismiss internal social networks as a security risk and as a distraction from doing “real work”. However a growing number of enterprises are finding that internal social networks are an excellent tool for unlocking the creative capacity of their own staff. This is even happening in more risk averse sectors such as government. Early this year, Ovum published a case study that looked at the use of social networking in the South Australian Department of Premier and Cabinet. In this case study, internal social networking was found to be an excellent method for opening discussion across corporate stovepipes and for testing ideas.

However in the rush to generate ideas, expectations can be raised to a level that is beyond the delivery capacity of the enterprise. The big challenge for the shoestring innovator is to manage expectations and keep the ideas generation process focused on priority issues for the enterprise. Ideas generation is not so much about creating a flood of ideas, but about creating a flow of useful ideas.

Innovation diffusion is the key to success

Innovation diffusion is a big topic and is the subject of countless articles. However, for the shoestring innovator, diffusion needs to be distilled down to one fundamental question. How can good ideas be turned into great outcomes? In the end it is all about outcomes. Even great innovation will languish, unless it gains acceptance within its target population.

Innovation diffusion can be a significant source of frustration for senior executives, as seemingly good ideas fail to take hold. Frustrated executives sometimes ask, “Why can’t we be more innovative just like Google, Apple or Microsoft?” However, there is no point trying to mimic other companies in other sectors. Innovation diffusion can only occur at a rate that matches the circumstances of each enterprise and only in the competitive context of each business sector.

Over the last year, many enterprises have struggled to deliver big, transformational IT projects. While these big projects may satisfy corporate aspirations to be leaders in innovation, the real test is not the size of the project, but the outcome it delivers.

Flexible technology is crucial for the innovative enterprise

Tight budgets are a constant reality for today’s CIOs. Sometimes there is an instinctive reaction to circle the wagons, fend off all additional expenditure requests, and deliver systems that meet minimum business requirements. However Ovum research indicates that, for many enterprises, these just set up the IT function for further cuts. An alternative approach is to treat the innovation agenda as an opportunity for growth. This means slimming down and becoming more agile. It requires business discussions built around outcomes rather than requirements, and a greater use of configurable solutions such as commercial-off-the-shelf software and cloud services. In order to become a respected player in corporate innovation, business executives will need to adopt a more pragmatic approach to requirements and expectations, and the IT department will need to learn to work with new tools. Doctor, heal thyself!

Kevin Noonan is a research director in Ovum’s government practice. Email comments to kevin.noonan@ovum.com

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