CIOs` Innovation Dilemma

Business executives talk about IT innovation more often than they achieve it, says Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, who backs up his statement with a Forrester report released in late February. Cameron spoke recently with Brian P. Watson, CIO Insight‘s online editor; this is an edited, condensed version of their conversation.

CIO Insight: How can you tell if CIOs and CEOs truly want innovation?

Cameron: By watching where the money goes and trying to understand the criteria executives set out. IBM found that innovation is at the top of the CEO’s charter, but look at how these executives execute. And McKinsey found that only about one-third of executives listed innovation as a top item on their agenda. So you get a lot of interest in innovation and a lot of noise about it, but in reality, it’s not there.

A lot of executives say innovation is important to them, but they don’t try to make their internal organization produce or don’t expect it to produce. CIOs say innovation is at the top of their list, but when you look at where they’re focusing, it’s not on innovation–it’s on operations and efficiency.

Is that because they’re not strategic enough?

Cameron: A lot of CIOs are where they are because they’re good at operational work. When you ask someone who’s an operational kingpin to drive something new and different, it’s sometimes difficult. There’s a lot of innovative stuff being done in IT shops to improve efficiency, but not to improve business results.

IT shops don’t measure the business impact of what they’ve done in a business cycle. They don’t track the business impact of infrastructure and operations, what we might call activity-based costing. They don’t rotate senior managers into the business functions to see what they do. This inside-out point of view limits the ability to be innovative because it’s trying to solve parochial problems.

So you’re saying that CIOs aren’t getting any respect from the business?

Cameron: The cynical angle is that a lot of these CIOs are accurately perceived. It’s not uncommon for me to get a call from a CIO saying, “Help me get some respect. I’m trying to move things forward, but they’re treating me like an order-taker.” Often, it’s because of the company’s business model, not because of them personally. I say to them, “You tell me where I’m wrong, but if you want to play a bigger role, you need to find a job with another company.”

In those experiences, the CIOs were unable to recognize the difference between their world and the world of their peers. The truth? Not all IT shops should be alike. Not all CIOs should be partners.

It seems like a lot of these CIOs aren’t getting it. Are they clueless?

Cameron: Those of us who help CIOs understand what’s possible are at fault for not making it really clear that there’s not just one CIO job: The job fits the business requirement for IT, not our concept of what IT is. It’s probable that CIOs see more opportunity for technology-based business innovation than businesspeople do. But it’s important for us, as IT leaders, to have a realistic view of where our companies are going–and not beat our heads against the wall.

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