Building an innovation culture starts with hiring the right people...This is particularly so in IT where your only real assets are your people, because technology and products keep on changing.
John Ascroft explains his chief innovation officer role at Jade Software by describing what he does not do.
“It is not about me sitting in a room and coming up with ideas,” says Ascroft. “It is working with the chief marketing officer and the rest of the team to build a culture of innovation so that things can happen.”
He has been with the software company for nearly 33 years and his portfolio focuses on promoting innovation across the organisation, as well as in their product development and services.
“For me innovation is about creating an environment where the company can innovate.''
He says building an innovation culture starts with hiring the right people.
“This is particularly so in IT where your only real assets are your people, because technology and products keep on changing.
“We hire people who are collaborative, optimistic and take a view that there is always a better way to do something.”
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For Ascroft, the physical environment also plays a part in building an innovative culture, mentioning that Jade has an open plan office.
“We run an agile environment. It is very open and there is a whole lot of focus on communications and being customer centric.”
This way of working applies not only to the software development team, but in every business unit like finance and marketing says Caroline Francis, director of marketing at Jade.
For instance, the office walls have magnetic whiteboard paint and the Jade staff use these as Kanban boards.
Two years ago Jade developed an internal programme called Thinkubator, which has now been refined into a “proven framework for innovation”, says Ascroft.
The programme aimed to generate a pipeline of ideas, and potential products for the company to market. There were competitions among staff who presented ideas for possible commercial application.
The sessions, says Francis, provided staff with the space to tackle problems they normally would not have time to consider.
Part of the programme is an online hub that will nurture the ideas. This ensures no matter where the idea was generated, it is reviewed and systematically assessed.
“Creating and enabling that culture of innovation has been so successful for us, that when we spoke to clients about it they asked, 'Can you run that for us?',” says Francis.
Creating and enabling that culture of innovation has been so successful for us as a programme, that when we spoke to clients they asked, 'Can you run that for us?
Thus, says Ascroft, Jade is now able to offer Thinkubator as “innovation culture as a service”.
“It is not a core service,” explains Ascroft, “as we are a global software product company.
“It is possible that in running these innovation projects [with customers] we will uncover projects we can run together to commercialise,” he says.
This happened the first time they used Thinkubator with a Jade customer.
He says running programmes such as Thinkubator is important for today’s organisations.
The pace of change in an increasingly digital environment “ups the stakes” for CIOs, he says. “CIOs have to be increasingly innovative, in tune and up to date.”
He says the programme differs from a hackathon, which is usually run over a weekend.
Thinkubator runs for seven to eight weeks. At Jade everyone was invited to submit ideas and the ideas came from the receptionist all the way through to the executive team.
The participants are encouraged to form cross-functional teams.
“Within our own organisation, we know that more diverse teams have much better results,” says Ascroft.
The teams have a couple of weeks to get together and then another couple of weeks to create an idea or work within their teams. There are also workshops on how to pitch their ideas to the judges.
The ideas are presented through a Dragons’ Den format, with judges from Jade and relevant industries, to critique the teams and provide feedback.
He decided to learn their language and started with a part time accounting degree, eventually completing a bachelor of commerce, majoring in accounting, at Otago University.
“When I got the degree I briefly thought about jumping ship, but decided to stick to IT as I enjoyed it.”
“Although I never practiced accounting, I use it everyday in business.”
As for his insights on shifts in the CIO role, he says there is an area that remains constant.
The basic role of understanding the customer, and being the bridge between technology and business does not change
“The basic role of understanding the customer, and being the bridge between technology and business does not change,” he says.
But he also notes the need to focus on the strategic side of the role.
“In my view, 90 per cent of the CIO’s strategic value comes from innovation on the digital side,” he states.
He says many CIOs are spending too much on BAU (business as usual) because “that is where they are comfortable”.
“What we should be doing is outsourcing or delegating that work and focus on the stuff that has strategic value for the company.”
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