InnovationInnovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. –Steve Jobs

There’s another CIO in the C-suite, and this time, it’s primarily about innovation, not investments or technology. How can CIOs assist corporate growth? What can they bring to an organization?

We have blogged before about the importance of creativity and innovation in business. And yet, sometimes the structure of corporations can stifle change, creativity, and therefore, innovation. Enter the Chief Innovation Officer, a person who can help navigate and potentially mitigate roadblocks that could hinder progress and innovation. The Harvard Business Review lays out a nice framework for the role, suggesting that CIOs can help employees generate new ideas through crowdsourcing and organized idea-generating sessions. They can also discover new markets and help usher ideas from conception to fruition. In other ways, they can help foster new skills among employees, and support “best practices” to create an ideal environment for innovative ideas, products, and processes. Some believe that technology is inherent in the Chief Innovation Officer’s role, even at non-tech companies. An interview with Marsh & McLennan’s CIO, Ben Allen, revealed the following:

“As you look at different types of innovation, whether it is product innovation, business model innovation, or service delivery innovation, much of that requires technology enablement.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that technology has had a disproportionate enabling influence on innovation in all areas.”

A commencement speech by Steve Blanks, detailed in Inc. magazine, outlines the types of innovation corporations can build and I add some of my own thoughts on how a CIO can add to those types of innovation.

  • Individual initiative: Individuals generate ideas and start the ball rolling. Sometimes these ideas come to fruition, and here is where a CIO can make the difference in follow through by working with both the C-suite and middle managers to make sure the idea sees the light of day.
  • Process improvement: Companies strive to improve existing products and processes. The CIO measures satisfaction among the customer base with respect to products and begins the process internally of improving or refining those products.

  • Continuous innovation: Companies look to their core product offering and create a new, related product, such as the iPod, which spawned the iPhone. This is both good and bad for the CIO. On the one hand, the CIO has the ability to really put creativity to work, finding new and different ways that will ultimately result in corporate growth. On the other, it can be inherently risky: new products and services often fail.
  • Disruptive innovation: This is the ultimate test of a company’s creativity or ability to innovate and where the CIO can truly shine. This type of innovation results in the smartphone, the Internet, and countless other types of groundbreaking advances in science and technology. It requires getting out of the comfort zone and pushing through bureaucratic resistance and complacency. Not surprisingly, this type of innovation is the rarest, particularly among corporations.

So will a Chief Innovation Officer become an integral part of the C-suite in coming years? Of course, only time will tell. But it is clear that innovation is no longer a “nice to have” feature of corporate strategy as the pace of business speeds up, technology continues to remake our economy, and executives are pressured to do more with less. Thinking “outside the box” will become less of an office buzzword and more a necessity.

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