Despite the clear need for UK companies to innovate, the term has become over-used. Indeed, as the economic performance of the UK went down, so it seems the use of the word innovation went up — almost as if it is some kind of rescue remedy that can be taken as and when needed.

Over the past five years, innovation has become an almost compulsory element of management speak and management planning. It brings to mind the excellent but cringe-worthy Martin Lukes, author of Who moved my Blackberry?, and his CreovationTM concept — a ghastly portmanteau of creativity and innovation.

However, when the call from the CEO comes to be more innovative, there will be senior management executives who are wondering exactly when they are supposed to find the time to do so, while trying to manage the day-to-day challenges of staying afloat.

These are the same management teams that have spent a great deal of time making the organisation more efficient — only to be told by innovation gurus that efficiency can inhibit innovation.

Some CIOs have built a career on playing a leading role in their organisation's innovation programmes; others remain cynical about what it is or indeed how useful it is. We like this extract from the blog of John Suffolk, the former UK government CIO:

"So in late 2006, early 2007 I got to learn how innovators really work. First of all they give you snippets of what they are up to.

 - "Oh we are just thinking of putting No 10 Petitions online, all right boss?"
 - "That thing I mentioned to you a little while ago it's going live, nothing to worry about..."
 - "Oh you know that little innovation we talked about, it seems to be causing a bit of a stir."
 - "I need to go and see Ministers."
 - "You need to go and see ministers."

And then over your port and lemon or snowball one night you read the national news headline: "Which prat thought this up?" Should you get angry or pat them on the back and say right now dream up something else?"

Despite the undoubted, and sometimes justified, cynicism, yes — CIOs do need to take innovation seriously.

However, it is advisable to avoid getting caught up in the many definitions and pseudo philosophies that have come to surround the whole topic. Instead, focus on trying to understand the characteristics of the organisation you work for, and therefore how IT can best support that type of organisation, such as by selecting, refining or reselecting the most appropriate tools or by choosing the right suppliers.

Importantly, you need to understand how your workforce operates in order to maximise engagement and collaboration among employees.

 - How resistant are staff to inter-departmental ideas exchange?
 - How comfortable are staff with using different types of collaboration tools? 

After all, there is no point making investments and setting off in one direction if neither of these support what your organisation is ultimately capable of achieving.

In the very least, you need to have a clear view of how serious your organisation's approach to innovation actually is. This can, however, be more difficult than it sounds as there are instances where leaders say one thing but are in fact not prepared to make all of the required commitments.

Like any other business function, you have finite resources, so it is worth making your own assessment of the degree to which your organisation's aspirations to innovate should impact your IT strategy.

Our view is that organisations should be addressing four main areas to ensure the success of attempts to be more innovative:

 - Tools
 - Processes
 - Strategic direction
 - Funding and investment

Without all of these in place, it would be very difficult to run a successful innovation programme. If your Board is not committing to all four elements you should be very wary about whether the call to innovate is more than just management lip service or naivety.

The diagram below outlines these four areas, with the grey shaded section showing the prime role CIOs play:

Source: K2 Advisory

Public sector innovation
CIOs in the public sector will have an even more hard time than, their more commercial counterparts, trying to align innovation with the more hard-nosed drivers within their organisations, as the urge to cut costs becomes the highest priority for them.

One of the greatest challenges for IT professionals working in the public sector is overcoming the perception that the IT department cannot play a significant role in helping organisations to innovate. It is one of the sectors most likely to associate IT with the back-office job of keeping the lights on.

During our research for this report, we came across some good examples of innovation by CIOs in local and central government, but there is much more IT could do to help organsations provide more efficient and useful services to the public.

Part of the solution is for IT to be more confident, more proactive and more collaborative with other function heads. This is easier said than done and we appreciate that it's not something that can be solved over-night.

There are some encouraging signs. K2 Advisory research shows that 35 per cent of public sector professionals surveyed say IT is increasingly involved with cross-organisational projects to foster innovation. This suggests that organisations are becoming more open to the idea of IT playing an important — possibly even a lead role in organisation-wide projects.

Where there is a particular weakness is around the use of IT to generate, collect and select new ideas from staff: only 34 per cent of public sector IT professionals say they have been involved with a project to do this.

While there are successful examples of idea-harvesting platforms, such as at the DWP, these are few and far between.

More worrying is the indication that 60 per cent have not received any training to help understand how they can bring greater innovation to the way they and their department work.

CIOs of any organisation need to first ascertain the scope of the role they could play and establish the best way to working with existing suppliers. The other element is about being proactive and pitching good ideas to the right senior management – the potential sponsors of new projects and strategies.

Here are some suggested first steps:

 - Meet with function heads to understand what their most critical objectives are
 - Tap vendor innovation teams for free advice.
 - Use your network, including organisations like Socitm and BCS, to gain pointers and support: other CIOs and innovation teams tend to be happy to share ideas
 - Do not try to generate too many ideas, as there will a finite number that you can implement
 - Your profile is important: think about ways to communicate across the organisation to draw ideas in and start new conversations with people

The approach you take to innovation will vary according to which type of organsation you work within. K2 Advisory has created a short assessment for CIOs to help determine the best next steps, which could help you refine your approach.

This feature is based on an extract from The CIO's role in enabling innovation, a K2 Advisory study. Please contact Kate Hanaghan if you are a CIO and would like the report in full or would like to take part in future research studies.

Kate Hanaghan manages the K2 Advisory research programme.

Pic: Mykl Roventine cc2.0