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IT Must Play Central Role In Enterprise Innovation

Panel of CIOs at Interop wrestles with transforming IT's role from protectors of the status quo to leaders in development of novel business solutions.

"The CIO as Innovator" is not necessarily a topic that many line-of-business managers would rush to learn about at a conference. After all, they have experienced the CIO and IT staff repeatedly as explainers of why things can't be done.

"In many organizations, IT is not seen as particularly innovative," said furturist Thornton May, the executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at the Haas School of Business at the University of California--Berkeley. May was speaking Monday to the CIO Boot Camp at Interop 2011 in Las Vegas, a UBM TechWeb event, with three hundred CIOs and IT directors showing up for his panel's discussion of the topic.

He didn't hesitate to embellish the notion of foot-dragging IT. "IT is not seen as attached to the centers of innovation in the company. It's not seen as supportive of innovation," he added.

"I look at innovation the way I always have," responded Alan Cullop, senior VP and CIO of TriZetto, supplier of automated systems for coordinating healthcare with benefit plans. "I'm naturally caffeinated and tend to question the norm, not accept the status quo. We all went into IT not to just run what we've got. Too many people get dragged down running what they have," he said to some nods of agreement.

Bruce Barnes, CEO of Bold Vision, a C-level executive management consulting firm and CIO emeritus of Nationwide Financial Services, spoke the most bluntly: "We become pretty heavily overwhelmed at times. We need a 48-hour day and it's not gonna happen. We're so focused on the here and now, we can't get a focus on what's next. We ought to be the John F. Kennedy looking down the road to see where we're going."

Rob Rennie, CIO and VP of technology at Florida State College in Jacksonville, took up the challenge. "I try to measure the zeal with which IT teams attack new problems," he said. He also tries to get a diversity of talent on the teams that are sent out to solve problems. "My guys tend to be 'the-tool-of-the-day' fanboys. I want general problem solvers rather than particular expertise," he said.

At another point, Rennie added: "I've seen a lot of innovative ideas die because the CIO didn't shop them around to key individuals in the organization and socialize them." In his previous two jobs, he found marketing what IT could do to be one of his primary roles. "IT has a horizontal view of the organization and should share it. The lines of business have a vertical view," which makes it hard for them to see past their own function, he said.

Cullop said the way out of the 48-hour day mentality is achieving sound, reliable operations; keeping systems running; and serving end users. Doing that eventually "creates the bandwidth to do innovative things. The entry point is operational excellence."

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