Finding the Essence of Innovation

Amid a dizzying array of management philosophies and business strategies, one thing stands out in the daily scramble to create viable products and services: Above all, success centers on a company’s ability to innovate.

Equifax CIO Robert Webb understands the concept well. “The ability to transform ideas into viable policies, practices and programs is what ultimately leads to a competitive advantage and generates profitable growth,” he says.

At Equifax, innovation falls between science and religion. In recent years, the $1.9 billion credit reporting behemoth has established itself as an industry leader with an array of products and services. The company has built a formal system for developing and incubating ideas, introduced a process that encourages experimentation, and constructed a pipeline for transforming promising ideas into actual business and IT initiatives. “We view innovation as the engine that drives our existence,” Webb explains.

Lofty words. Nevertheless, Webb and many other CIOs understand that innovation is a tricky and elusive concept. Great ideas inexplicably flounder, mundane ideas flourish, and there’s no simple and consistent way to understand what works. Further adding to the challenge: IT continues to evolve and change at a mind-bending pace–and IT departments must serve a dual role of helping solve business challenges but also facilitating incremental process improvements through hardware, software and systems.

At the eye of the storm, perhaps only one thing is clear: IT innovation isn’t a destination, it’s an ongoing journey. A 2007 Boston Consulting Group study found that 46 percent of senior executives from 2,468 firms were dissatisfied with the results and return on investment from innovation initiatives.

The upshot? “Ultimately, it’s great to be creative and inventive,” says Scott Anthony, author of The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times and president of Innosight, a consulting firm that focuses on innovation. “But unless an organization can transform ideas and concepts into something that has a material impact, the ideas really don’t matter.”

How do successful organizations and CIOs grapple with innovation? How do ideas evolve into business and IT improvements that lead to bottom-line gains? And how can an enterprise move past the hype and put innovation to work?

There are no easy answers. As Andrew McAfee, associate professor at Harvard Business School and author of the forthcoming book Enterprise 2.0, observes: “You have to fully understand the business drivers in order to plug in the right IT systems and build a foundation for innovation.”

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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