The Two Keys to Driving IT Innovation

By Charles Araujo

In 1996, I had the opportunity to be a part of something special. Working for a large, regional health-care provider, I was a member of a team that broke new ground in the then-nascent world of telemedicine. Working hand-in-hand with the director responsible for implementing this new approach to health care, we developed a highly integrated system that was far ahead of its time. Pulling data from a whole host of systems and data repositories, we built a workflow-driven telemedicine application that enabled a nurse to move seamlessly from patient identification, to billing authorization, to the review of a patient’s medical history, to accessing our clinical pathways, to updating medical records and, finally, to automated referrals if further care was required. While much more commonplace today, this system was quite a feat 17 years ago.

Without this telemedicine application, a nurse would have been required to access at least eight different systems, with a different log-in for each system, in order to perform his or her functions. It would have virtually guaranteed that the nurse would be focused on the technology rather than the patient. When we rolled out this new system, our sponsor flat-out told the executive team that it would have been impossible to enter the realm of telemedicine in the way we did without the system we had developed. It was a triumph of innovation. And it enabled us to provide better and faster care to our patients. It felt good to be a part of it, but the question for IT organizations today is whether or not you can create this kind of innovation on a repeatable basis. Can IT organizations create truly innovative cultures?

The Need to Innovate

IT organizations are under an immense amount of pressure today. We are simultaneously called upon to be highly efficient organizations, managing very complex environments that need to deliver reliably and consistently. At the same time, we are asked to create game-changing innovation. Unfortunately, these two challenges are seemingly diametrically opposed to one another. On the one hand, we need rigor, discipline and standardization to create these highly functioning, highly reliable environments. On the other hand, we need creativity, insights and the freedom to explore to create meaningful innovation. As an IT leader, how are you supposed to simultaneously put these two together?

In my book The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change, I identify five skills that every IT professional must possess and develop if he or she are to remain relevant in the next generation of the IT organization. One of those skill areas is innovation and collaboration. I believe the capability to innovate—both personally and organizationally—is nothing short of an imperative. If we do not succeed in creating a culture of innovation within IT organizations, we will continue to erode the trust and confidence of our customers. Executing flawlessly is the ticket to the game, but if you want to actually play ball, you must become a master at innovation.

The challenge is twofold. First, how do you balance these two apparently conflicting demands? Second, how do you take an organization that is focused on operational execution and create innovation without putting that execution at risk? I believe the answer can be found in my experiences with telemedicine and in the two secret keys to innovation that it taught me.

Design Thinking

When we began our telemedicine project, we didn’t have this grand plan to reinvent things. It began, as most IT projects do, with a simple project request. The head of the program didn’t really know what she wanted. She had not worked with IT much in the past—and that’s probably what saved us. She didn’t come to us with a pre-baked set of requirements and workflows. Instead, she came to us with a problem. More specifically, she came to us with a persona—a nurse—and a simple question: How could we most closely simulate the experience of a nurse dealing with a patient in a clinical setting, even though each of them would be at the other end of a phone line?

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