Outsiders won't fix your innovation problem: A CIO's take

Ellucian CIO shares advice on how to create a pervasive innovation culture
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Companies that succeed in today’s fast-moving technology environment will not do so by focusing solely externally on sources of innovation. Rather, they’ll do so by cultivating a pervasive culture of innovation within their own enterprise. Today, the entire organization – from R&D, to sales, to marketing, to IT, to finance – must be constantly thinking about innovating, changing, and moving rapidly in response to new opportunities and challenges. And, it’s the CIO and the other business leaders who are responsible for setting the expectation that innovation is part of everyone’s job.

If you are only looking externally for innovation and technology trends, you encounter several problems. There are so many different sources of information and advice available that sifting and selecting become a real challenge. Sifting through all of the information coming to you and deciding which solutions can really be transformative or help you achieve a business objective is a difficult task. Selecting the ones that will have a positive impact for you is even harder. We’re fortunate to be a technology company that is partnered with other technology companies; we can network with peers and get advice on what’s working for them. We can also deeply engage and understand the needs of our customers. However, we can’t rely on this external feedback alone if we want to remain competitive.

Creating a culture of innovation

Fostering a culture of innovation internally starts with the hiring process and extends to all parts of the organization. At Ellucian, and in Ellucian IT, we make it a point to leverage the people on our teams who are best at this. Those individuals not only help us drive awareness of innovation potential within the organization, but they also help us build innovation skills of others through recognition, incentives, and other initiatives. We’ve also developed rewards programs, coaching, and development opportunities for our leaders and managers, all of which help us to build an expectation of innovation into the performance management process. In IT, we set the tone that everyone is responsible for innovation.

The work environment plays a factor, as well. We have consciously created our headquarters as a physical environment that supports innovation through an open layout, lots of breakout rooms, and spaces explicitly dedicated to trying new things. It helps us set the tone that we are not just comfortable with change – we thrive on it.

Of course, you don’t want to be so internally focused that you are operating in a vacuum. You need to be thinking about where the world is going from a technology perspective and ensure you’re moving in that direction. But you also need to understand what your customers are asking for and how their worlds are changing. Encouraging customer understanding and skills on your team can help bring those two innovation threads together.

We are not just comfortable with change – we thrive on it.

As innovation opportunities arise, you’ll have another set of choices to make. Unless you have unique needs or proprietary intellectual property at stake, it’s often faster and less expensive to buy a relevant capability rather than build your own. And, the sustaining costs of custom solutions must be considered to make the right business decision. If you buy rather than build, at a minimum you’ll get fast feedback before you invest in a custom solution.

I encourage CIOs to define the aspects of your business, whether it’s in IT or in your enterprise’s products and services, where you are unique. Then, spend the money and the time to think through what capabilities your customers need and will need in the future, how to specify those capabilities, and how to deliver them effectively. That is the place you should be focused when innovating internally.

Once you get to that place, recognize that almost everyone in the organization can play a role and has some accountability in the goal. Trying to rely solely on external sources to drive innovation isn’t going to get you there. Staying in touch with your environment and your customers is a must, but everybody in the organization must believe innovation is vital and believe they own a part of it. This pervasive culture of innovation will have everybody driving in the same direction, and it’s what will lead to success in the long run.

Lee Congdon is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ellucian, the leading independent provider of higher education software, services and analytics.