This week I had a chance to attend a ‘Community Dinner’ event in Winnipeg on behalf of TRLabs.  This research and development company works with the academic and business communities to develop new technology solutions, or as the TRLabs tagline states: “Fast Tracking Innovation to Market”.  The keynote speaker, the provincial Minister for Science, Technology, Energy and Mines, started out with remarks on the role of teams working cooperatively to create innovation, and how that cooperative effort helps to minimize or mitigate risk.  I have to confess that at this point I became distracted thinking about teams, innovation and risk, and what these have meant for business and IT at a practical level. What better way to justify that distraction than to share some of those thoughts with all of you as this month’s blog?

Innovation has been floating through the buzzword-world for several years now.  At first it was pretty cool: it evoked feelings of adventure, exploration and discovery.  Innovation meant going where ‘no-one had gone before’ and how could anyone from the Star Trek generation not respond to that?  Books were written on the need for innovation; awards were created to recognize innovation; every business strategy and objectives list managed to incorporate at least one (or more) ‘innovation strategies’.  Some organizations even went as far as to create a new senior position: ‘Chief Innovation Officer’ – usually in an attempt to rebrand the existing Chief Information Officer role by adding onto that individual some extraordinary expectations to ‘innovate’ the business.  We all knew CIOs were super-humans, but now they even had the power of business life-and-death in their hands!

Innovation isn’t a new word or concept, but in our culture it has become synonymous with technology solutions and is frequently looked on as the sole responsibility of IT.  Often the business role in innovation appears to be limited to making demands of IT and then waiting for the solutions to appear. Somewhere in between IT is expected to perform magic – pulling an innovation ‘rabbit’ out of the technology ‘hat’ – all at no additional cost to the management, of course.  What are missing in this scenario, though, are the concepts of ‘teamwork’ and ‘risk’, which were key elements in the Minister’s comments at the TRLabs Community Dinner.

 From a business/IT alignment perspective, true innovation cannot be devolved solely to the CIO and IT department.  In fact, most IT resources and budget within an organization are dedicated to required projects and operational activities focused on maintaining and supporting the existing environment – the opposite of innovation. If IT is in a service delivery role, it isn’t in a position to take on the risk of pursuing innovation. If there is no risk, can we have true innovation?  It is unlikely that new ideas, processes or tools can be introduced into a business without affecting the current environment in some way.  Even with mitigation strategies in place, risk and innovation walk together. Leadership to deal with both of these has to come from the executive and business leaders in collaboration with IT as a jointly responsible team.

True innovation requires a collaboration of the brightest, most creative and future-thinking minds from the executive, business, marketing and technology units, working together and willing to accept risks in order to ‘explore new worlds and seek out new life’ for the organization and their future.  Perhaps we can learn something from Star Trek after all!