When bad practices happen to good IT concepts

Great IT concepts have a disturbing way of becoming vague or meaningless words.

Put terms like open, scalable and resilient – which businesses once used to describe the general functions and capabilities they sought in IT – into the hands of overzealous marketers, and the meaning gets lost as a result of overuse and products that don’t deliver.

Good ideas go bad when they’re force-fitted to sell something. Ten years ago, Oracle Corp. president Larry Ellison proclaimed, “the network is the computer,” and served up the “thin client.” The notion may have been prophetic, but when it came right down to it, wasn’t Mr. Ellison simply railing against the “fat client” desktops with lots of processing power and storage capacity promoted by foes Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp.? Hewlett Packard Corp. introduced the “Adaptive Enterprise” a few years back, right around the same time that International Business Machines Corp. and Oracle similarly announced “On Demand” computing as strategies for buying IT in the form of – to use another over hyped marketing concept – computing utility. None of these ideas permeated much beyond the marketing departments of the IT vendors that coined them.

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Unfortunately, it’s easier to invent buzzwords than to actually build a complex set of products needed to fulfill such visions.

Now the term “innovation” has emerged as the driving buzzword for marketing IT in 2006. It’s a seemingly powerful concept and a great pretext for almost any type of IT sale, but will innovation, like all too many other IT concepts, become yet another hollow and misunderstood IT buzzword?

IBM is among the first vendors seeking to make innovation a term synonymous with its brand. At its Partner World conference in Las Vegas last month, innovation was the central theme. Bruce Harreld, the company’s senior vice-president for marketing and strategy, preached “innovation that matters” as Big Blue’s current mantra. In 2006, he said, IBM will “change the dialogue” to talk about innovation and “evolving the brand to reflect the reality of a repositioned IBM.”

One wonders whether the multitude of loyal IBM business partners assembled in Las Vegas really understood what innovation they should be selling and how will it make customers more successful. The company wants to position itself as the innovation partner – the “innovator’s innovator” – but while the marketing message suggests something important, there seems to be little substance at this point.

Fast forward to April 5 at the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSE), where the insights of leading IT market researchers were revealed at IDC Canada’s annual Directions event. They were likewise focused on innovation, but this time there were specifics.

In a session called The Disruptive Innovation Nation, IDC Canada managing director Vito Mabrucco called for innovation of processes and other business-cultural ways of thinking in order to compete more effectively both within and outside the country. “In the domestic sphere, innovative thinking must be focused on making organizations not only more productive, but also creating better products and services, and driving business advantages for Canadian entities that compete in the domestic marketplace.”

It starts with accumulating customer knowledge and creating “an innovative business strategy, adopting the right technology, using best-in-class practices and proven processes to support that plan,” he continued.

Mr. Mabrucco used Rogers Communication as an illustration of successful innovation. “Rogers, maybe four or five years ago, embarked on a project to consolidate its customer billing so that it had one view of the customer and the customer had one view of [the company’s services],” he said. “This was a business strategy that required immense technical knowledge and investment. They built it over time and today that billing platform has become a very clear source of competitive advantage.”

Today, through its consolidated billing system, Rogers can more easily bundle services, which has helped raise customer satisfaction, increase customer retention and raise profitability, according to Mr. Mabrucco. It didn’t happen overnight and it came as a result of an organizational commitment to improve and achieve greater business success. It’s also an example of IT invention helping to enable innovative processes. A powerful story.

More from Dan McLean

To read more of Dan’s articles for The Globe and Mail, click here.

But innovation is not invention, Mr. Mabrucco pointed out. “Invention, while necessary, is not sufficient to successful innovation and business success.”

It’s often much more about the processes, organizational and business model changes that IT is used to support and enrich. Most importantly, it requires organizational buy-in – and that is the critical piece. IT in and of itself cannot impose business innovation. People drive innovation and IT is a tool. This is the point vendors are missing as they try to turn “innovation” into a marketing pitch.

A case in point was a panel discussion at the IDC Directions event, hosted by yours truly. The participants were four CIOs from finance, government and health care organizations. The question was asked: To what extent are the employees and business unit managers in their organizations tasked to use IT to achieve return on investment and gain greater productivity and efficiency? Who’s using IT in innovative ways to make their businesses better?

One panelist suggested most people within his company barely used the basic functions of IT-enabled applications. Another suggested there’s extremely limited IT savvy within her organization, joking about those users who still “wave a mouse in the air” in an attempt to use it. All agreed the full function of the IT investments made within their companies was not anywhere near being fully realized.

It’s a revealing situation. How many Canadian businesses share a similar story? IT is hardly a catalyst for innovation when employees apply little beyond its basic function. That’s the real challenge of innovation enabled through IT. It’s not about buying more, but doing more with what you already have.

Innovation is, first and foremost, a business philosophy – that’s the message that must be sent to Canadian businesses. Change the workplace culture first, otherwise your IT investment achieves little. Innovation is little more than a buzzword if you can’t see that.

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