It's an elusive concept, but can literally mean the difference between life and death for corporations struggling to survive in an increasingly competitive landscape. Just everybody agrees they're focused on achieving it, but they're going about it in very different ways. It's a term tossed around enough to make it a buzzword, but IT executives attending a recent CIO Asia roundtable sponsored by Avaya on the topic say innovation -- and ensuring technology facilitates it -- is one of their primary concerns. The roundtable was moderated by Teng Fang Yih, editor of this magazine.
The problems start when IT shops try to pin down exactly what innovation is. This is the predicament faced by the likes of Aw Yong Sai Khoon, deputy general manager of the information systems division, corporate management, at manufacturer Pioneer Electronics Asiacentre. His Japanese parent firm recently decided to make innovation a key criterion by which they measure the performance of their regional offices. Khoon is finding it difficult to guess how his office will fare.
"I'm not sure how they're going to measure it," he sighs. "When it comes to technology, I think we can easily get everything from vendors, but innovation has to be something deeper."
To George Wang, global head of standards and group head of the chief architecture office Asia at news agency Reuters, innovation is "the only thing that drives revenue growth in a relatively mature market." But it's also a word that's frequently misconstrued.
"There are a lot of misconceptions, many good ideas, but good ideas themselves are not innovation," he says. "Only when they're being implemented and have end products do they become innovation. So my question is how we create that process of generating ideas, and produce real revenue growth."
For David Brown, CIO at audio specialist Behringer Holdings, innovation is quite simply "survival in today's market place," while "coming up with new ideas to be competitive." But in more everyday terms for the IT department, he also sees it as "making sure everything works smoothly and keeps working" -- no mean achievement when networks and systems are growing more complex and there's the potential for much more to go wrong.
Innovation has grown more important, executives say, as business moves at a faster pace -- and if you don't happen to have it, you risk being left behind.
James Haensly, vice-president of strategy at the Asia-Pacific division of communications vendor Avaya, says innovation can come "from anywhere within the company" or may even be forced upon a firm by external forces. When the latter happens, he says, "you have to act on it even further. Perhaps it's your competitor that's doing it and they'll then position you as 'old school' while they're on the way to doing something new and different."
Like Wang, he sees innovation as something "more than just an idea, more than concepts. If it's not something that delivers results, at the end of the day, it's not really that innovative. It might have been creative or interesting, but if it's innovative, it's something that transforms."
For examples of innovation in action, Haensly says enterprises need look no further than modern communications, which have completely revolutionized companies' strategies and day-to-day operations.
Tools such as voice over internet protocol (VoIP) have become a "key leverage point" and "enabler" for change, especially innovations that allow firms to bridge the gaps between geographies and home and the workplace.
At Behringer, new communications infrastructure has supported a centralization drive that has made the company more portable. With manufacturing facilities in China, design churned out of the Philippines, and the US emerging as its main market, the firm "couldn't really be tied to one location," says Brown. "We had to move where the market was, and we had to move fast, which is why we're becoming internet-based."
Sebastian Sim, associate director of business services and operations at Colliers International, says with the company's portfolio expanding "aggressively" in developing markets such as Indonesia and Pakistan, he's looking at how networks can help reshape the firm's exploding regional presence in a way that better prepares it to deal with instability or crises.
"In Southeast Asia I believe we're so exposed to terrorist attacks or to viruses," he says. "If we can't go to the office, what can we do to continue our business, how can we link offices together to create a regional base that means when one office is down another can take over operations?"
A similar situation is faced by Joseph Wong, assistant vice-president of the technology department at Starwood Asia-Pacific Hotels & Resorts. He says the company is going through a phase of "immense growth" accumulating dozens of new properties in far-flung locations each year.
"We're a service-oriented industry, and we're seeing challenges in dealing with our growth and communicating across different geographies," he explains.
Relatively new and increasingly sophisticated communication offerings such as VoIP, instant messaging and videoconferencing can help firms address some of these issues and lay the groundwork for innovation in the organization. But some executives pointed out these solutions, and innovation itself, can give rise to a few headaches.
Wong says Starwood is finding it "difficult to manage all our people" as well as "the information that's actually been the end product of all this innovation with technology."
"The amount of information that is coming across multiple media, delivered quickly, demands a different way of handling, but many people are still using the old, traditional models of managing their e-mail or snail mail," he says. "I see a lot of executives and a lot of businesses that find it difficult to sift through the amount of information that's coming in, differentiating the noise from the rest and prioritizing the key areas. We're constantly looking for solutions that allow us to communicate while filtering out the noise so we can act in a timely manner."
"The challenge of course is that prioritization," Haensly agrees. "If you've got everything coming in, sometimes it comes in flattened."
Brown says that when, like Behringer a firm consolidates its IT systems in basically a single location it may reap efficiency gains, but also "opens itself up to a lot of vulnerabilities".
"Spam mail alone is phenomenal, because everything is going through just one center now, so we see it in much greater proportions than we used to. Also the impact on the networks is quite dramatic, people are uploading and downloading things all the time, causing us to have problems. (With) IP telephony, the phone networks that were good are no longer very good, we're getting a lot of interruptions and can't sustain the lines for very long."
For William Chong, business technology director -- corporate solutions, Asia Pacific at property services firm Jones Lang LaSalle Singapore, recent advances in communication could eventually pose a threat to his firm's very existence.
"The whole concept of real estate is under siege," he remarks. "CIOs can now sit in their homes and do teleconferences with someone a thousand miles away. In the next decade or so, I think there's going to be a drastic shift between what's considered working space and real estate, the whole dynamic's going to change. When (young people) hit the workforce 10 years from now, what's going to happen to the concept of offices? Will they really need them?"
So companies obviously need to be ready to embrace innovation, to ride the crests of change. But who's responsible for making sure they do that? Does the CIO have a role to play? According to executives at the roundtable, the answer is yes and no.
"Looking out for the next wave of changes, identifying how you can mobilize the company, revolutionize the technology and stay ahead of the competition -- the CIO, many times has been given the task of finding that technology for the company, to be the 'chief innovation officer,' to find what the company can do next to stay ahead of the game or break the competitor's momentum," says Starwood's Wong.
"Innovation should be part of a CIO's role, but [the CIO also] has to keep costs down and the business running," says Reuters' Wang. "The largest part of the CIO's job is still to keep things running. If you can't do that, you shouldn't be talking about the rest. Your job will probably be gone. You've got to worry about the basics first."
Chong, however, begs to differ. "Innovation is a culture, the firm needs to have it," he says. "They can't just put it squarely on the shoulders of the CIO. The CIO as facilitator and champion of innovation -- I guess that works, but it has to be in a larger framework, the people out in the field have to be the listening posts for the business and market, and if you don't create a culture of innovation, it won't happen."
Innovation should be built into the corporate "DNA," but debate still rages over how companies can do that, or catalogue and develop their employees' genuine flashes of inspiration.
James Loo, CIO at logistics firm YCH Group, advocates a balanced approach in which an enterprise's staff are encouraged to raise new and interesting ideas, albeit within the confines of some sort of formalized process or framework.
"But you need to be orderly, somehow everybody must follow a process rather than running different ways and eventually leaving the organization totally mismanaged," he explains. "We need to float good ideas up and make sure they're acted on. There are some organizations that suffer from people who don't think at all, that just keep executing in the same way."
Loo believes innovation can also be "forced down from the top" to a certain extent, and managed to ensure a company "keeps ahead of the competition and when the crisis hits, has a crystal ball that allows it to get out."
To truly give rise to an innovation culture, some executives say CIOs -- and the rest of the management suite -- need to learn to occasionally let go of the reins.
"Structured innovation -- I don't think those two words go together," Chong says. "Within innovation you have to deal with a bit of the unknown (and) risk-taking has to be accepted. Some of your people out there may have great ideas, but if you constantly put them under a shell you can't gain. The culture has to support it."
In the IT department, this can mean stepping back and allowing users to take advantage of solutions or technologies that sometimes present security or governance hazards. Haensly points to the example of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. They're best known as hotbeds of illegal activity but are also highly effective platforms for collaboration and communication.
"That information sharing can serve in a different and positive way," he says. "So when do you curtail a certain thing at the expense of not allowing it to create something valuable for your company?"
For Pioneer Electronics' Aw Yong, this debate only serves to highlight how little the CIO's role has actually altered in a time of when technological advances come fast and furious.
"Regardless of whatever else changes, the role and responsibility of the CIO never will," he laughs. "They'll still be the buffer between the business and technology, educating the business and making sure whatever new (solutions) brought into the company don't create chaos."
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