We all have a tendency to only look directly at what we’re doing today, and not step back and say: “What do I, what does my company, need to be focusing on now, for the future?” Taking that step back is the step toward innovation and away from stagnation.

Maybe you don’t need to be on the bleeding edge, and maybe you don’t have a lot of resources to be investing in multiple areas, but you need to ask the question: what do we need to be focusing on, not just to make our own IT organisation ready for the future but also to ensure that we are enabling the businesses we support to be ready to go forward. At The Dannon Company, a business unit of Groupe Danone, we call it “Today. For Tomorrow.”

Within Groupe Danone North America we have business solution and infrastructure technology teams that focus on maintaining, enhancing and running solutions. They are responsible for the things that we have to do just to operate and make sure that we have the right balance of investment. But those of us in technology leadership positions have a responsibility to think about how individuals are going to be using technology in the future.

I’m part of the generation that remembers life before the internet and that does not wish to go back from email to written correspondence. Yet the generation now coming into the workforce is turning its back on email in favour of instant and text messaging. They are not restricted by physical or political barriers, they operate in global communities, and they don’t believe in being held captive by email, but operate using social networking tools.

They will change the way we do business, and while there is no way to predict the changes that will come beyond then, we have to be ready. We will need new skills and tools to remain relevant in the global community.

To help prepare for this change, at Dannon we have an innovation and collaboration focus that we’ve brought together as a separate team called I&I, which stands for ‘Informing and Innovation’. It’s a small team, and its charter is to look at emerging tools and technology and find ways to bring them into the business mainstream, not just into the IS/IT groups. I&I is not necessarily evaluating only the ideas emerging in academia, or the technologies 10 years out in a research lab; they are looking at what is starting to come into the business workplace, and at technologies that we haven’t necessarily thought of as tools, such as Facebook and Second Life. They examine leading technologies and tools from three standpoints: enhancing market share, creating sales, and increasing internal operational and resource, or employee, efficiency.

It’s hardly rocket science. Improving these areas are goals for every company but, more often than not, the solutions are focused on the present. We created the I&I team to look past that. Our goal is to have them introduce new tools and new technologies, and migrate those into our everyday way of doing things.

Sometimes the I&I team is out there just searching for whatever they can find. Many other times, their search has direction. In one case, the solutions are growing out of global and business needs. The idea of social responsibility, sustainability, of going green, has made its way into the inner reaches of business thought.

One of the areas in which my group and I&I have had the biggest impact so far is in improving the North American operation’s videoconferencing solution to a point where people want to use it.

Most people don’t like videoconferencing because it’s too hard to set up, and the need to go through outside carriers makes it too expensive. But the business came to us wondering how they could cut down on all the travel they have to do within the Americas and to the Danone headquarters in France. So we wondered whether we could reintroduce the concept of videoconferencing. Using the dedicated networks we have throughout our facilities and the VoIP phone system, we came up with a solution that requires thousands instead of millions of dollars, and pays for itself within a couple of small meetings.

We also looked at how we could use web-cams, so videoconferencing can be done from one desk to another, and even from multiple desks to one in a videoconference call that we call ‘the Brady Bunch effect’. The success of that led to people asking for the capability when they were out of the office. What we see on the near horizon is the whole idea of mobile vision: the next generation of handheld devices and phones can already support this, with one camera on the back for taking pictures, and one on the front for web video calls.

Unified vision

The idea of unified communications and collaboration will also factor into this as it progresses, so that calls and video-conferences can transfer from a business phone to a cell phone or to a home landline without interruption. It is I&I’s responsibility, enabled by our infrastructure technology team, to keep that eye on the future. They must also partner with the business solutions team, because that group has the best understanding of business requirements and can help ensure that what I&I does supports both current investments and Danone initiatives.

How far ahead to look is a question that every CIO must address, and it depends on the role of IS/IT in the business area you’re in. For industries like financial services, it can only help to be looking out as far as possible. In the consumer foods industry, if IS/IT doesn’t stay at the leading edge, you can be at a competitive disadvantage but we’re not going to change the way that the company is fundamentally going to do business overnight. From our point of view, innovation is looking at and understanding what capabilities are out there in the marketplace that we’re not taking full advantage of and then using them to improve the way we do business today.

No matter how far into the future you’re reaching, there has to be a realisation that not everything you try is going to be successful. That’s the hard part for people. They assume that if they’re investing money, then everything is going to work out. When I started at Groupe Danone, I spent a lot of time getting the leadership to understand the change we were going to go through. Now everything from I&I goes through incremental pilots, and we’re trying to take a more agile approach. We try to provide some quick wins, solving some of the initial needs and problems that made us look at a new technology while keeping an end state in mind. But we don’t know what that end state looks like until we work our way through.

The realisation you must have, and that you must convey to your company’s executives and your IS/IT staff, is that investing with new technologies is not enough. The key to innovation is solving business problems. We like technology, and it’s -really cool when you get to go play with the newest, latest videocam, but your goal is to make the business more efficient.

So, start small, or at least in a specific business area or unit, but convince your executives that starting innovation somewhere can benefit everywhere. Although officially the I&I team is for Dannon, it has become a source for the entire North American operation. Specific initiatives are even reaching out to Groupe Danone at large. Once we delivered practical solutions, the business stepped forward with funding for more, because they got the hunger. They realised what our focus on innovation can bring to the table, and they want that to continue and grow.