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Can CIOs be the heart of business innovation?

The CIO can be at the heart of business innovation by formalizing four different roles: originator, facilitator, deliverer and navigator, writes Accenture’s Strategy’s David Quinney.

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Never has there been a better time to work in technology. Technology innovation increasingly defines our world, from new products and services, to new ways of doing business and the breakdown of traditional industry barriers. Yet most CIOs are not at the heart of their company’s innovation agenda.

David Quinney

When we asked more than 1,200 business and technology leaders, 90 percent said that new IT-led innovation is critical to their company’s growth and survival. Yet, only 57 percent consider their organizations to be early adopters when it comes to technology-driven innovation.

CIOs are often tasked with implementing other people’s ideas, not being part of them. Many of us flirt with innovation when a space appears in the day job, kicking off a series of “side of desk” projects to show we are innovative but are lost in turn when the day job kicks back in. The reality is innovation cannot be treated as a one-off. It is a complex and fluid topic that occurs throughout an organization in different forms, from different departments and at multiple levels - and it requires a defined management response.

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The CIO can be at the heart of the business innovation response by formalizing four different roles: originator, facilitator, deliverer and navigator. Taking a leadership position on all four roles will position the CIO as the C-level digital innovator.

Four roles, one purpose: enabling digital innovation

Ninety-one percent of the executives responding to the Accenture survey believe innovation is most successful when IT is integrated throughout the innovation process. In order for IT to become integrated from idea to execution, the CIO needs to adopt the four roles of originator, facilitator, deliverer and navigator.

Originator: CIOs must own the definitive point of view on technology innovation. Investment must be found to build a repeatable technology radar service that scans multiple (and new) technology idea sources — bloggers, open source initiatives, crowd-funding platforms, venture capitalist portfolios, app stores, vendor roadmaps and R&D investments. But ideas are often not the real challenge. CIOs must combine their unique business and technology perspectives to bring technology ideas to life to address business and customer issues and opportunities - by forming better links with startup companies and technology vendors, getting involved in early discussions, taking prototypes to the business. You may get it wrong, but your spark will more than likely ignite a different and larger innovation fire.

Facilitator:Innovation happens across and beyond an organization, and CIOs often struggle to connect at the right time. Many IT departments only get involved when an idea has been turned into a set of requirements to be coded. CIOs can become central to every innovation debate by providing open environments, and re-positioning themselves as the facilitators and connectors of innovation. The CIO must be the ‘go-to’ innovation service provider offering collaboration tools, open access to technology platforms, eco-systems and development teams. One CIO went as far as setting up IT teams next to the company café to work up new business ideas whilst people took a coffee break.

Deliverer: The delivery role will be the most comfortable for CIOs; however, as we all know in our hearts, the typical design/build/test approach usually kills innovation. Today’s CIOs must take a minimal viable product and iterative approach to explore ideas. The team makeup will also look different. Innovation requires a broader contribution from across the business, customers, third-party vendors, wider ecosystem players, and, of course, IT. Measurements of success must change from on time and on budget, to features added and discarded (i.e. learning measures) that support a “fail fast” approach. It requires a significant mental and talent management shift for many IT organizations to move in this direction, but it is a cultural change that will help innovation flourish.

Navigator: Sometimes the hardest part of innovation is recognizing that a new idea may be better suited outside of the immediate organization. For instance, if a CIO is dealing with true disruptive technology, that technology may prove to be disruptive to the business itself. The typical organizational decision-making process would typically crush such an idea because it conflicts with established decision frameworks and financial evaluation techniques. In such cases, the CIO must recognize the value of the disruptive idea, and take it to the top of the house for special consideration. Select the right people who can separate an idea from the core organization, and give it life. These are bold moves well outside the typical CIO’s comfort zone, but they are strategic business moves that ultimately develop thriving digital businesses.

CIO as digital innovator

CIOs who are able to take a leadership position in all four roles and build the capabilities to support them can place themselves at the forefront of business innovation. It’s an exciting opportunity, and one that is not for the faint of heart. But isn’t this the reason we all got involved in technology many years ago?

David Quinney is a managing director in Accenture Strategy – Technology.

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