CIOs usually have within their span of resources or capability all of the tools they need to innovate. They usually have the strong project management capability in the organisation, according to Glen Willoughby, general manager of IT at Downer.
“They are closely linked with technology providers and other technology peers. They have the ability to share and leverage information within their networks,” he says.
Willoughby believes these are just some of the reasons why today’s CIOs and other ICT executives are given “stronger roles” around driving changes in their businesses.
This belief has been honed during more than two decades of business technology leadership roles across industries including education, dairy, healthcare and finance.
What he finds useful as he moves across industries are the words of Dr Don Berwick, who was president of the not-for-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) in the United States.
What is important is the ability to move and adapt at a fast pace.
He says Berwick and the IHI developed a value statement for health, referred to as the ‘Triple Aim’, which was around any initiative that health undertakes should ensure three things: improving quality, reducing cost and waste and providing equitable access to healthcare.
Applying these three metrics to a commercial setting, any IT work should likewise be consistent with improving quality and taking cost and waste out, he says. “But I have replaced equity of access to healthcare to improving the competitive advantage of an organisation.”
He says the third point – providing competitive advantage – is important because “technology continues be so disruptive”.
“Some of the smaller organisations that previously couldn’t have competed because they do not have the economies of scale can now do so in certain verticals where economies of scale are far less important,” he explains.
“What is important is the ability to move and adapt at a fast pace.”
Large organisations have an advantage, he says. “They can invest and afford to innovate at speed. The downside is most large enterprises tend not to be nimble enough to adapt the rate of change of speed required.
“There are many organisations doing revolutionary things,” he says.
"The trick to innovating well is not to move too fast." says Willoughby.
Although moving quickly is important, technologists need to develop and select technologies that deliver enduring success, he states.
“Short-term success is not useful alone, short-term innovation creating longer-term sustainable value improves competitive advantage.”
A trend he has been seeing over the past five years is CIOs being asked to lead business innovations that are enabled by technology.
“IT has come from an administrative activity, previously science and research based, to being very much a core and strategic foundation around how organisations grow,” he says. “IT is now a key enabler, it is a disruptive enabler.”
Willoughby has been working with Tom Soderstrom, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a US government-funded research and development centre in California. JPL supports programmes including the Mars exploration and theHubble Space Telescope.
“It is one of most innovative organisations on the planet today.”
Part of Soderstrom’s role is bringing technologies and innovation together to drive outcomes for JPL and NASA, says Willoughby.
“Ten to fifteen years ago, that would have been unheard of. The executive of IT was not an executive role at all. It was at the back office, focusing on administrative systems.”
Closer to home, he cites the role held by Rod Snodgrass, CEO of Spark Ventures as a good example of a company looking at effective innovation to establish new opportunities.
He says its creation as a source of innovation for the bigger Spark (formerly Telecom NZ) organisation, he assumes, must have been quite a significant and radical move at that time by Spark CEO Simon Moutter.
Willoughby recalls a recent discussion he had with Snodgrass where the latter told him an important question to ask when looking at innovation opportunities is: “What would you do if you were only setting up your business now?”
Willoughby says he likes that question because it opens up people’s minds to the technologies and new ways of thinking that were not available when you first set up the business.
“Look at organisations that are using innovation to transform the way people work, the likes of Uber, Air BnB, Netflix, Alibaba, Apple and Google. Simplification is the key,” he says.
“We establish systems that evolve over time, under different market conditions, whether in healthcare, the dairy industry, education or civil engineering. We need to ask, ‘how did we get here, how did we create complex systems?’
“If we started it now, would we do it this way?’ For some organisations, the answer is ‘no.’”
"Set a strategy that enables small scale innovation" #cio100— Phil Tanner (@Phil_Tanner) March 22, 2016
Read more: The technology puzzle
Next: Disrupting well
Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.