Is IT more innovative than imagination?


Rumours of IT’s value as a catalyst for innovation have been greatly exaggerated. Mark Twain might have uttered these words had he lived amid today’s modern, hyped-up world of information technology.

Many in the vendor community would have you believe that business innovation is the core value of IT and the realization of that value is proportionate to the level of IT investment made by a company. True innovators might beg to differ.

No doubt IT has often proved to be the means for achieving greater efficiency and productivity within companies, but how big a part does it play in actually enabling business innovation?

A recent press release from software developer SAP Canada Inc. suggests IT investment is extremely significant when it comes to business innovation.

SAP cites an Ipsos-Reid survey of “Canada’s leading IT executives” who say they believe “IT has a crucial role to play in enabling innovation.” But in examining the evidence for such an assertion, the claim seems subjective at best.

Survey results do show that 51 per cent of 133 respondents ranked business innovation among the top three areas of greatest positive impact from IT. On the surface, that result may seem significant, but consider how other attributes were ranked.

Operational efficiency as an area of positive impact, for example, ranked top three for 78 per cent of respondents, while business productivity was cited by 71 per cent.

The telling point may be what respondents ranked as the top benefit of IT. Operational efficiency was voted number one by 36 per cent and business productivity came out on top in the minds of 26 per cent.

By comparison, business innovation ranked number one with only six per cent of respondents — behind the IT benefit of mobilizing workforces, which was cited by eight per cent.

IT priorities
It’s interesting to see that SAP’s press release announcing the Ipsos-Reid survey results trumpets the headline: “Canada’s Road to Business Growth and Innovation Runs Through the IT Department.”

Consider where these same Canadian IT executives said they’d be spending their IT dollars this year. A total of 23 per cent said personal hardware such as laptops, desktops and monitors would be the top investment priority in 2007. Operational management software was next in line, with enterprise information management ranking as the number one investment for 14 per cent and security applications for 10 per cent.

It seems fair to consider whether such things are the tools of business innovation.

And, when considering the areas of the business where CIOs felt IT would contribute most, seven in 10 respondents pointed first to the achievement of operational efficiencies, followed by productivity gains and addressing security. Business innovation fell in at 42 per cent.

Let’s not suggest that IT doesn’t have any part to play in helping businesses be innovative; rather it’s the disconcerting trend by purveyors of IT to perhaps oversell the value of innovation.

The marketing rhetoric may have been spurred by the assertions of Harvard Business Review writer Nicholas Carr, who a few years ago said that IT doesn’t matter.

His often misunderstood point was that there’s no competitive advantage gained from IT. And it ignited a firestorm, particularly among vendors that took exception to the debunking of what most positioned as a key value proposition.

Mr. Carr added to the “IT Doesn’t Matter” discussion a couple of years later, in 2005, by postulating that businesses would soon discover that it made no sense to own and manage computing capability.

In a nine-page document, called “The End of Corporate Computing,” Mr. Carr contended that IT was at a stage where the transition from information technology as a built and owned corporate function would move to a service delivered by a utility provider.

Seems Mr. Carr sees IT more as a commodity rather than a catalyst for innovation.

People power
The truth may be that achieving business innovation has much more to do with smart people rather than technology.

That’s an assertion that comes from a genuine innovator — Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer and inventor who in 2004 was behind the launch of an orbital space flight through his privately made rocket ship called SpaceShipOne.

A keynote speaker at IBM’s PartnerWorld conference in Las Vegas last March, Mr. Rutan suggested innovation happened within companies that created a culture that encouraged innovation from ground-level employees.

“Innovation from CEOs…it almost never happens,” he told an assembled audience of IBM channel partners. “Their job is to figure out what goal is appropriate.”

Mr. Rutan also observed that, to truly innovate, you need “confidence in nonsense.” Before a breakthrough is recognized, it’s often considered nonsense or whacky.

His take was that innovation is driven by the ideas of people who’ve been inspired at a young age and it’s accelerated in a world that lives in fear.

Mr. Rutan specifically pointed to the fantastic era of innovation achieved by the U.S. space program in the early 1960s, which accomplished a lunar landing in less than 10 years and was inspired by the Cold War “race for space.”

Couldn’t a company do more to drive business innovation through the creation of a business culture that stimulates, encourages and rewards creatively thinking employees, than it might through any amount of IT investment?

Most CIOs with whom I’ve spoken over the years say their greatest challenge has had much less to do with implementing IT and much more to do with helping employees use most of the basic functions and making the most of the IT tools they’ve been given. Many employees are anything but innovative when it comes to their use of IT.

Still, a great many vendors today say it is IT that makes the difference to enabling business innovation.

Mark Twain’s response to such a claim would likely have been a repeat of another of his famous quotes: “Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she has laid an asteroid.”

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