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Federal IT: Eliminate Innovation Pessimism

Federal CIOs struggling to innovate should borrow lessons on open innovation from the private sector.

Elaine Beeman

June 4, 2014

5 Min Read

Innovation holds the potential to transform organizations -- even governments -- but it takes a strategic commitment, not just the right environment, to convert the sparks of bright ideas into enduring changes in culture, capacity, and IT capabilities.

It says a lot about the state of business these days that 94% of more than 500 executives responding to a recent Accenture survey reported that their strategy depends on their company's innovation engine.

Yet tightening budgets and growing skepticism about whether innovation and new technology will continue to drive new capabilities and growth -- call it "innovation pessimism" -- have left some federal CIOs cynical about investing in costly research and development programs out of concern that they don't produce the expected results.

[Government CIOs are in a unique position to improve lives. Here's how: Federal CIOs, Take Open Data To Next Level.]

There's one way around such thinking that can help reduce up-front costs without compromising results. It involves open innovation, where both internal and external ideas are used to accelerate innovation. Having explored the results of 20 companies considered leaders in open innovation, it's evident that this dual approach increases innovation, enables faster time-to-market, reduces costs and risks, and stretches competencies and resources.

With the right governance structure in place, open innovation can lead to radically different approaches to research and development processes by bringing together the collective experience and capabilities of people both inside the organization and beyond. It bridges traditional communications boundaries and delivers faster, better solutions.

The White House, for example, has created an Open Innovator's Toolkit to share leading practices to help scale this approach across the public sector. By improving the creation, acceleration, and adoption of new concepts and technologies, open innovation can help agencies realize greater benefits and higher value from their innovation investments.

The challenge for most companies and agencies alike is the "open" part of open innovation. This characteristic helps organizations establish parallel streams of activity. It enables an agency to generate more ideas, vet them with a broader set of experiences, and arrive at solutions more efficiently. By engaging others in the process, it also shares the risk across participants and enables more experimentation at a rapid rate.

Still, agencies must put the right structure in place to manage, track, and demonstrate results from casting a wider net. There's more than one approach. Selecting the right one for your agency, given its mission and IT needs, is essential to success.

Consider these factors as you evaluate potential approaches to open innovation to support your agency's digital, mobile, social, cloud, or other IT initiatives:

1. The challenge: This refers to the breadth of the question you are asking -- or the nature of the solution -- your agency is striving to achieve. That might be something as broad as "We are looking for any and all ideas that might improve our IT operations," or as specific as "We are looking for an open source, cloud-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution for IT service management." A thoughtfully framed upfront question can substantially shape the process and outcomes that will follow.

2. Location of participants: Although open innovation is typically thought of as occurring online, many effective models involve physical proximity of participants, particularly when it requires rapid brainstorming and the collision of different perspectives. What location options might be appropriate for your agency's innovation goals? If proximity is not required, what digital channels will incent the best collaboration and creative idea sharing for your particular challenge?

3. Level of control: This refers to the degree to which your agency needs or wants to control project activity. At one extreme, the agency exercises complete control of the topic: participants, time constraints, monitoring, and idea vetting. Another option is the "free-for-all," such as an open source project with complete transparency, democratic decision-making, and self-monitoring. Governance processes, tracking mechanisms, and meeting protocols are derived from choices about the control required.

4. Collaboration: Paradoxically, there can be a lot of latitude as to how "open" an open innovation project might be. An example of a very open collaboration would be Wikipedia, where anyone can participate. A closed model might be a cross-agency working group, in which the participants are hand-selected and known only to one another. Once you've selected the appropriate model, what tools will your agency use to facilitate this collaboration?

5. Depth: This refers to how penetrating the open innovation activity is within the greater organization. This might range from a project that is surface-level and marketing-driven, like an app challenge that does not affect how the organization runs, to the truly embedded open innovation project that requires organization-wide involvement. How will your agency plan for and manage the impact of innovation?

Open innovation represents a paradigm shift in how research and development gets done, with an emphasis on using collaboration to maximize all available brainpower and expertise. Through forums like Challenge.gov and agency-specific pilot projects, the federal government has already begun to experiment with this approach.

Knowing where your program fits across factors that comprise an innovation approach -- each one a continuum of complexity -- will help you plan the structure and tools you need manage successfully. With the right structure in place, your agency can enlist the insights and expertise from across its workforce to solve significant challenges over a shorter period of time and at a lower cost.

Find out how a government program is putting cloud computing on the fast track to better security. Also in the Cloud Security issue of InformationWeek Government: Defense CIO Teri Takai on why FedRAMP helps everyone.

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About the Author(s)

Elaine Beeman

Managing Director, Accenture Federal Services Management Consulting

Elaine Beeman leads the management consulting practice for Accenture Federal Services, with responsibility for the sales and delivery of management consulting work for US civilian, defense, intelligence, and public safety agencies. She specializes on strategy, talent and organization performance, customer relationship management, supply chain and logistics, finance and enterprise performance, and analytics.

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