The need for IT innovation leads to aggressive collaboration

IT innovation is what happens when there's no money for new equipment but plenty of fresh ideas emanating from all parts of the business.

It used to be that when business executives needed some new technology, they presented their requirements to the CIO, who worked with IT to research, purchase and implement it. These days, however, most enterprises have an impressive installed technology base, and doing something new with what they have -- also known as IT innovation -- is the value proposition.

"Most institutions have every piece of software known to man," said Will Showalter, CIO at Sisters of Mercy Health System, a network of 28 hospitals across four states in the nation's heartland. "When the business presents its requirements, it becomes more about how you can tailor what you have through innovation," he said.

While Showalter was toiling in Chesterfield, Mo., last week, hundreds of other CIOs gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz., to discuss IT innovation with analysts from Gartner Inc. The Stamford, Conn.-based research firm adopted the concept of creative destruction as the theme for its CIO Leadership Forum, where the discussions were about how innovation often is the brainchild of collaborative thinking.

"We are where we are, with a tremendous investment in resources," said Mark McDonald, a Gartner vice president and co-chair of the event. "It's time to focus on finding competitive advantage."

It might take eating a slice of humble pie for technologists to admit they don't know everything about the business; and that's why it's important for CIOs to break down the walls between departments, just as surely as new technologies help them tear down silos of information. Creative destruction involves collaboration so that the best ideas bubble to the top.

"Get people working together, and provide a governing structure," advised Harry Pickett, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Manulife Financial Corp., based in Toronto.

Creating a different relationship with peers is critical when you're reimagining IT, McDonald said. Also critical is delivering against new commitments. He encouraged attendees to embrace new infrastructure delivery options and refocus IT on the truly strategic.

Take the case of an IT employee at W.W. Grainger Inc., an industrial supply company based in Lake Forest, Ill., who took the initiative and developed a mobile phone application that connects with Microsoft's Bing search engine so field reps always know what's in stock. "It's a slight twist in logic -- the recognition that 'there was something I could do and no one asked,'" McDonald said.

Most institutions have every piece of software known to man. When the business presents its requirements, it becomes more about how you can tailor what you have through innovation.

Will Showalter, CIO, Sisters of Mercy Health System

When CEMEX Inc., a global cement producer, discovered that fewer companies were buying cement, executives tried to figure out how to contain CEMEX's own costs. The company put together a team of people to look at less expensive fuels for making cement. Using social media, the company surveyed all of its 168 plants to understand the use of fuels, identified the top two plants using alternative fuels, ran a webinar and achieved a 5% increase in the use of alternative fuels company-wide -- within five weeks, McDonald said.

"The first question should always be, 'Is there a quick and dirty way to do this?'" McDonald said, urging CIOs to achieve growth by doing something different -- preferably, something no one asked for. "Results may not get you new resources, but they will give you the ability to play by new rules."

Sometimes business innovation is driven by technology. That was the case with J.R. Simplot Co., a privately held company headquartered in Boise, Idaho, that sells such products as frozen French fries to McDonald's Corp., and guacamole to grocery stores and restaurants. When the company decided to take advantage of cloud computing, it took the IT resources saved (60 people, according to McDonald) and put them into business analyst positions.

The long-touted convergence of business and technology is what caused executives at Crossmark Inc., a consumer goods sales and marketing company in Plano, Texas, to hire a CIO from the business side, McDonald said.

The trend extends across such verticals as manufacturing, retail, financial and health care. "We have gone to great lengths in our business to understand there's a new paradigm in IT health care," said Mercy Health System's Showalter. "It's a realization that technology really isn't about technology, it's about the ability to transform business."

The first opportunity comes with people understanding the process, according to Mimi Chizever, vice president for claims technology at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., who spoke at the Gartner conference about her company's implementation of Toyota's Lean principles for IT. As part of that initiative, Nationwide brings people together from various parts of the business in a dedicated room during work hours for continuous IT and business process improvement.

"Probably no single person could describe all the roles in the value stream mapping," Chizever said. "Great conversations happen, like, 'Why do you do that?'"

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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