Why Business Doesn't Look To IT For Innovation - InformationWeek

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10/3/2012
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Why Business Doesn't Look To IT For Innovation

Most employees outside of IT don’t call their IT teams very innovative, yet most believe technology is growing in importance, our research shows. Can IT still be the hero?

Who's To Blame?

At too many companies in our survey, no one's in charge of innovation, there are scant funds to pursue it, and training is mostly do-it-yourself. But at least one survey finding is encouraging: Most respondents think business and IT departments are equally at fault for their dearth of innovation.

When we asked survey takers if their company "actively helps its IT professionals develop the business or soft skills needed to stay current and aid innovation," 55% of IT respondents said there's no formal program but they do what they can, and 22% have no program at all. Only 19% said their company has a program in place.

Dedicated IT funding for innovative new projects is scarce--only 13% of IT and 14% of non-IT respondents said their companies have such a fund. Similarly, 16% of IT respondents and 13% of non-IT respondents said such projects are a fairly easy sell despite no dedicated fund. The lion's share of respondents said funding is project-dependent (37% of IT and 29% of non-IT). However, a notably large percentage of respondents (24% of IT, 17% of non-IT) takes the dim view that projects take so many executive approvals that "by that time, they're no longer innovative."

IT Is In Demand

The idea that the IT organization is overlooked as an innovation driver and is being bypassed by business units comes at an odd time when you consider the robust employment prospects for IT professionals. Between 2001 and 2011, more than 742,000 new U.S. IT jobs were created, an increase of 29.1%, while employment as a whole grew just 0.2%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures contained in a report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. The report notes that the number of IT jobs has grown throughout the recent recession--6.8% from May 2007 to May 2011--as the U.S. job market shrank by 4.5%. At the same time, average IT worker salaries were 74% higher than the overall average. Offshore IT outsourcing hasn't displaced nearly as many American IT workers as critics have feared.

But make no mistake: IT pros must keep on evolving and adapting.

By The Numbers

The biggest change is moving from being a service builder to a service integrator, as more of what IT provisions comes from cloud-based software, says Michael Skaff, CIO of e-commerce startup LesConcierges. Also a challenge is balancing corporate-wide computing requirements with requests from individual departments for rapid software implementation and BYOD, he says.

But Skaff's no stranger to using technology to drive cultural change. In his previous role as CIO of the San Francisco Symphony, he was instrumental in melding innovation within the conservative confines of a symphony hall. For example, instead of being steadfast about patrons turning off smartphones during a concert, those in the second level of the venue were encouraged to use Twitter and Facebook--with audio alerts turned off.

As other departments (most notably marketing) have embarked on technology strategies, the role of the CIO has also evolved into a collaborative and consulting role with those departments. "We are moving from classic design, develop, and deploy to collaborate, integrate, and secure," says Gregory Smith, CIO of The Pew Charitable Trusts and author of the CIO career guide Straight To The Top. In particular, the CIO should be involved in vendor selection based on criteria of security and corporate integration capabilities that a CMO might not consider.

As employees buy their own mobile devices, and cloud software runs in a vendor's database, these trends free IT from some of their duties of running--and fixing--day-to-day IT systems. Inside enterprise data centers, private cloud architectures are automating more work, also freeing IT pros up from manual tasks.

In a keynote speech at the InformationWeek 500 Conference, author and MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson forecast a scenario where technology innovation will accelerate, replacing ever more human tasks and functions. While the idea of self-learning and self-healing systems has been around for a while, it's only now that those systems are leaving the R&D labs and entering the mainstream. The biggest threat to the traditional American IT employee won't be an offshore worker, Brynjolfsson said, but the very systems they're building and managing.

So how does IT move forward amid the uncertainty and doubt about its innovative firepower? That's one area where there's almost no debate in our survey. Nine out of 10 IT pros and non-IT pros either "completely agree" or "somewhat agree" that IT should work closely with business executives to develop innovative applications. That's a no-brainer, but companies doing it well are putting structures in place to make sure that cooperation happens.

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