CIOs: Look Beyond Departmental Walls To Inspire Innovation

Pete Swabey

IT departments should draw on networks of expertise to acquire the necessary insight and authority to lead digital innovation.

One of the standout findings from Digitising IT, a research project by The Economist Intelligence Unit sponsored by SAP, is that executives would like their IT department to be more proactive in driving digital innovation.

Just 7% of the 812 executives surveyed for the project say their IT department “plays a leadership role” in identifying opportunities to innovate. The most common response, with 46% of respondents, is that IT “plays a passive supporting role” in this capability. But 35% say that, in an ideal world, IT would take the lead in identifying innovation opportunities, while a further 30% believe IT should at least have an active supporting role.

Bonus: Give IT the ability to find new and innovative ways for the company to succeed. See “Learn more about Digitizing IT.”

Crucially, IT executives themselves are just as likely to hold this view as their peers from other departments. IT leaders recognise the need for their department to show other functions how digital technology could be used to support innovation. So why haven’t they taken the lead already?

The most obvious answer is that they simply have more pressing responsibilities. Just 14% of survey respondents say that leading technology innovation is the primary role of the IT department in their organisation. Managing relationships with outsourced IT providers (32%), maintaining and integrating legacy IT systems (27%) and operating as a service provider to the business (26%) are all more common responses.

Talent for innovation

Shouldering these responsibilities does not necessarily prevent IT departments from also providing guidance and leadership on digital innovation. However, their historical focus on these roles has left many ill-equipped to be an active innovation partner.

Until now, IT departments have been recruiting staff with the skills to fulfill their traditional roles. As a result, many lack the expertise in emerging digital technologies and an understanding of how they contribute to the business. And as noted in the “Injecting Innovation” article that accompanies the Digitising IT report, “arguably the thorniest challenge of driving innovation within an established company is nurturing fresh thinking.”

In its 2016 CIO Agenda Report, analyst company Gartner observes that talent is “the single biggest issue standing in the way of CIOs achieving their objectives.” Furthermore, the report notes that “talent management practices are not keeping up with the ever-increasing and changing needs of the digital world.”

Gartner advises CIOs facing talent-supply issues to investigate alternative approaches to harnessing digital know-how, beyond conventional hiring. These include crowdsourcing, working more closely with universities on internships, and “considering customers and partners … as extensions of the talent platform.”

In other words, IT departments should draw on networks of expertise beyond their internal ranks in order to develop the insight and authority required to lead digital innovation.

This is one of the many ways in which digital transformation requires IT departments to be more outward-looking than they have been in the past. Similarly, the requirement to support new customer experiences obliges IT to be more focused on the customer than has traditionally been the case.

It is the CIO’s job to lead this change in perspective from the top.

This article was first published on Economist Intelligence Unit Digitizing IT site.

Pete Swabey

About Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey is a senior editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit's thought leadership division in EMEA; he is also global lead for the tech sector. He specializes in technology and has managed research projects on topics including digital transformation, the hyperconnected economy, the future of work, and the evolution of marketing. He has presented this research at a range of conferences and has moderated discussions at a number of The Economist Group's own events. Before joining The Economist Group in October 2013, Pete was editor of enterprise IT magazine and Web site Information Age and head of technology research for business-to-business publisher Vitesse Media.