The CIO’s Role in Innovation

Innovation often comes from customer-driven feedback loops, but a CIO’s organization can be the perfect “internal” testbed for innovation.

Romi Mahajan, Author and Tech Investor

June 17, 2021

4 Min Read
Credit: Sergey Nivens via Adobe Stock

For companies that want to take innovation seriously, start with the CIO.

The CIO and CIO organization can be at the center of innovation in any company as long as we understand innovation for what it is.

The word “innovation” may be bandied about with such imprecision that it can become for many, mere pabulum. To say a product or solution is “innovative” is merely to say it exists -- such is the nature of overuse and hyperbole. In no sector is this truer than in technology where every idea or minute change is heralded as “innovative.” No wonder so few people take the word seriously anymore.

Overuse unfortunately leads to collateral damage: Real innovation can be lost in the din and organizations whose leaders are enamored with their own rhetoric may beguile themselves into believing that real innovation is “natural” and to be innovative a God-given right. In fact, innovation is anything but.

Academic literature on innovation is abundant. From notions of “creative destruction” to the teleological approach of business cycles and Kondratieff waves, from Marxist views of technology-led automation to neoliberal views of technology-based cost reductions, the focus on innovations comes from many ideological frameworks and timelines. To unpack this, we need to center on a common language/lexicon to describe innovation.

In an earlier era of clean and precise language, innovation meant something different. It once stood for something tectonic, the application of an idea that fundamentally changed how humans operate. Now it stands for any change -- even incremental change -- or the application of any idea to an organizational or business model. 

For our purposes, let’s find a compromise. Innovation should simply imply a change -- either in design, technology, or process -- that moves an idea or industry forward appreciably. Let’s also stipulate that the beholder (user) can judge the beauty of the innovation.

Given that definition, what are the conditions for innovation and who plays an important role in the process?

Scholars and doers both agree that innovation is a messy process. Ideas must be generated and acted upon; their collision creates innovation. Freedom is key to this process, freedom to think, tinker, and associate. Testing is also key to this process; nothing emerges perfectly from the foam of the ocean. For these reasons, thinkers such as academics Manuel Castells and Anna Lee Saxenian collectively coined the idea of a “milieu of innovation,” which became a stand-in for the set of circumstances -- planned or serendipitous -- that create the possibility of innovation. Human ingenuity then turns potential energy into kinetic energy.

In the realm of business, this notion has clear implications. Innovation stems from the virtuous combination of ingenuity, exertion, and dynamic feedback loops. With regard to feedback loops, there are two ways to gain “intelligence” -- research and customer engagement. Even phase-shifting, epoch-making invention comes from an iterative process. It is possible to iterate for “generations,” still face market stagnation, and then hit a “Eureka!” moment that garners massive market support. In such an uneven process, every iteration matters and every round of feedback, supported by research, helps the organization telescope on eventual success.

This kind of laboratory, which consists of a constant cycle of development, trial, feedback, and iteration, finds a natural place in the office of the CIO. To understand this is to arrive at the conclusion that innovative organizations have strong CIOs whose organizations act as “testbeds” for innovative new ideas.

Here, it is useful to think of the service org aspect of IT. If IT has qualities of a service organization then internal users can be thought of as customers. They “dogfood” -- consume their own new products and solutions ideas -- and offer feedback, which can come in a variety of forms. Through a service-level agreement, IT then responds to the feedback with fixes to problems. Through the CIO organization, the company has a built-in, vendor-customer ecosystem. While external customer feedback is important, it is unwise to overlook the fact that internal customers and constituents can provide fuel for innovation just as much as any external party can.

This is often overlooked by both internal constituents and by theorists of innovation. Discounting the role of the CIO and the CIO organization in the grand process of innovation is a huge miss. This is a clarion call to CIOs to be vocal about this and to communicate the importance of their organizations in innovation.

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IT Leadership: 10 Ways to Unleash Enterprise Innovation

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About the Author(s)

Romi Mahajan

Author and Tech Investor

Stephen Foskett is an active participant in the world of enterprise information technology, currently focusing on enterprise storage and cloud computing. He is responsible for Gestalt IT, a community of independent IT thought leaders, and organizes the popular Tech Field Day events. A long-time voice in the storage industry, Foskett has authored numerous articles for industry publications, and is a popular presenter at industry events. His contributions to the enterprise IT community have earned him recognition as both a Microsoft MVP and VMware vExpert. Stephen Foskett is principal consultant at Foskett Services.

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