One of the symptoms of the digital economy is that the small group of early technology adopters is growing rapidly. Gone are the days when this group solely comprised IT professionals and those with a fascination for new technology and (Boolean) little interest in society. Today almost everyone is an early adopter and that is reducing product development cycles into continuous streams of technology upgrades.

The net result is that IT has become sexy, and that is good news for our industry. Technology fuelled business innovation is on the rise. However there is a danger that the IT function is in danger of not playing a supporting role.

The problem as I have stated many times is that the typical IT function is branded with an operational IT tag. The IT service management help desk / call centre model, whilst service focused is not customer focused. Thus many business leaders do not know their CIO / IT function well enough to establish whether they are capable or even interested in playing a role in business innovation.

So let us take a look at how we might address this slide into operational oblivion. Firstly I would like to draw on a recent Harvard Business Review article by management guru John P Kotter. He correctly states that the current pyramidal command and control management structure adopted by organisations today is actually obstructing business agility. But rather than risking the alienation of HBR's readership by stating that the model should be overhauled, he proposed that a parallel model is developed.

This shadow structure is built around the pressing issues and opportunities that require a more nimble response than the C2 model can deliver. This shadow model could be considered cellular in structure and might focus on areas such as:


  • Changes in regulations.
  • A PR disaster.
  • The adoption of enterprise social media.
  • Workforce mobility.

Such task force driven activity requires collaboration from people sprinkled across the corporate organogram. In a world where the enterprise-market boundary is blurring, such collaboration will increasingly involve suppliers, regulators, customers and even strangers.

Creative endeavours which in turn lead to innovations tend to be most fruitful when there is cross functional pollination. So an enhancement of innovation quality can be expected with  this new model.

So if your IT function wants to play a part in driving the organisation to a more innovative culture, you need to gear shift up the OSI stack and provide the necessary collaboration tools.

Having done this you are a key element of this cultural transformation. However you are a support act and most likely to have little influence over the innovation agenda in respect of disruptive technologies.

I thus suggest you apply some HBR thinking to your IT function. It is likely that you have some form of departmental structure, usually divided into applications and infrastructure. You may even have an enterprise architecture team who take a big picture perspective.

I suggest that you create a shadow model to your IT function that exists primarily to explore the business value that can be levered from emerging technologies given the macro trends that are playing out. Some CIOs will argue they have embraced this model already and refer to these cell based task forces as something called projects.

However in respect of innovation these 'projects' will not necessarily have a crisp objective, defined resources and a clear timeline.

Rather than formalising such initiatives, I would invite your staff to nominate areas of innovative opportunity. These can be short listed by a panel of users to ensure business relevance.

Your IT staff will then be free to choose the initiatives with which they want to be involved. The staff will not be paid extra for this, nor will they be given extra time. It is up to them to manage their contractual commitments in parallel with their involvement in an innovation task force.

Smart IT staff who want to play with ‘new new’ technologies and / or improve their business visibility will see this as a great opportunity. You can choose to what extent you involve the users. Perhaps you could invite them to a quarterly innovation day to show them how your function does more than just keep the datacentre running.

Once the Users start to perceive the IT function as having something to offer in respect of innovation your people may well be invited to join the innovation task forces running in the user community.

At some point thereafter CIO will come to mean Chief Innovation Officer. Who knows perhaps you could then make a play to become the CEO of this shadow organisation?!