How To Foster Greater Collaboration Between Innovators and the IT Department

Success in innovation requires greater collaboration with the corporate IT department, yet in many cases friction between the two leaves innovation managers with tools they don't want to use or IT managers with tools they can't support. How do you get this critical relationship right?

In some respects, innovators and information technology (IT) managers are natural adversaries.  Traditionally, companies have used information technology to drive down costs and improve product quality by standardizing and institutionalizing processes, eliminating human touch points, and minimizing errors and rework.

Processes such as innovation, which encourage risk taking, recognize the need to accept failure, and seek to destroy the status quo make relatively little sense to the average IT specialist.  Most often, the IT specialist’s concept of innovation is a new tool that adds features and functions to the existing IT toolset.  Rarely does the IT specialist possess enough knowledge of the company’s strategy, its product or service positioning, or the marketplace of relevant tools and applications, to communicate effectively with the company’s innovators.  Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that over the past few years IT professionals have become increasingly service oriented and are always looking to help if they can.

If you are an innovation manager, chances are good that you and your staff are fairly sophisticated users of information systems and technology.  But, the odds are also high that you’re doing so without the full support of your IT department.

If you are an innovation manager, chances are good that you and your staff are fairly sophisticated users of information systems and technology.  But, the odds are also high that you’re doing so without the full support of your IT department.  You could, for instance be procuring and using your own applications without the IT department necessarily knowing about them. You might even be hiding IT resources and working around the processes and systems that your IT department has put in place to limit IT spending, standardize systems, and control access to information.  If that’s the case, you probably are not using IT as effectively as you could be.

So, how can innovation managers ensure that their staff members and colleagues use information systems and technologies effectively?  Should they work with their IT group or work around it?  If it’s most effective to have IT and R&D groups work together, how can the cultural divide be bridged and what processes and organizational structures should be put in place to maximize the value from such collaboration?  One factor that frames the answers to these question is IT governance, specifically how the firm acquires and controls its IT resources and skills.

Organizational Governance of IT

Organizational governance of IT spending often determines the nature of collaboration between IT and innovators.  A variety of governance arrangements can be successful.  Many large companies, for example, provide their research departments with the funding and authority to hire their own IT personnel and buy their own hardware and applications.  These IT staffs work only with researchers and other innovators, so they understand the process of innovation. Also they are exposed on a daily basis to innovation drivers and thus develop intrinsic insights into corporate strategy. Such understanding enables them to contribute actively to idea generation and project support.  However, they tend to be isolated from the corporate IT group, making it difficult and occasionally impossible for them to leverage the corporate IT infrastructure. The result is duplication of computing and network resources and collection of data and knowledge that’s walled off from the rest of the company, and vice versa.

Innovation managers who lack direct control over their IT resources can bypass their IT group by using cloud computing to purchase information technology services and platforms on an as needed basis.  Cloud computing is popular among startup companies because they can obtain the IT resources they need without an upfront investment in infrastructure, software, or personnel.  Many innovators think of themselves as corporate “intrapreneurs,” so the cloud solution is attractive at first.  But, without IT training and lacking the checks and balances generally built into the typical corporate systems’ development processes, problems often arise when these ad hoc solutions need to be maintained or extended.  While this solution works in the short run and for quick hits, using the cloud to bypass IT  on a sustained basis most often fails to be effective.

When control of IT spending rests entirely in the hands of the IT department and when large portions of it are controlled by a third department, such as marketing or manufacturing, the need for cooperation between IT and R&D is most pressing.  While the initiative can come from either party, we take the perspective of the innovation manager and ask how to involve IT so that cultural differences do not get in the way of using IT effectively. We find two key decision areas that innovation managers need to consider for IT to effectively support innovation. These are Innovation Management (i.e., identifying activities in the innovation process that IT can support and enhance) and the Innovation IT Toolkit (i.e. identifying particular IT applications that innovators need for their tasks and ensuring that they are available and used).

Innovation Management

Although the process of innovation is messy, the management of innovation tends to be much less so.  Software applications can help control the innovation pipeline, for example, to ensure the desired mix of projects according to their expected date of completion, ratio of incremental to breakthrough innovation, financial value, and types of products, services, and business units targeted.  IT specialists use portfolio management tools to manage the systems development pipeline and in most cases can modify the tools they use to help manage the innovation portfolio.  Even if different portfolio applications are needed, portfolio management is a good cultural fit for the IT professional.  Similarly, IT specialists can help find or build applications to help manage innovation projects from inception to implementation, as they use similar tools for systems development.  The project management language and processes are somewhat different for innovation and IT projects, such as the use of Stage-Gate® for innovation projects vs. SDLC for systems projects, but the concepts are similar.  Other innovation management functions, such as intellectual property (IP) control, are also well supported by IT products and well understood by IT managers.

The Innovation IT Toolkit

The selection, customization, and maintenance of IT tools for innovation generally form the major battleground between innovators and IT departments.  IT tools can support a wide variety of functions that are important to innovators, such as idea generation, scientific and statistical analysis, product and process design, and collaboration.  The major challenges are 1) identifying the tools that can be most helpful and 2) overcoming the learning curve once those tools are acquired.  Innovators are accustomed to technology scanning in their areas of expertise, but IT specialists are better qualified to scan for IT tools that support the innovation process – that is, assuming they are sufficiently knowledgeable about the process and the projects underway.  But, what happens when an innovator requests a simulation tool and the IT department responds that the company already has licenses for three such tools and the IT department provides no support for any of them?

It is highly important that tool acquisition be a joint task.  When tools are acquired by IT without innovator input, we have found that no amount of “selling” will convince innovators that the time spent learning to use them will pay off in the end.

On the one hand, denial of the request helps keep costs down and it’s quite possible the innovator could use one of the existing tools.  On the other hand, the innovator is frustrated because the IT department doesn’t have a clue as to why this particular piece of software is the right one for the job.  It is highly important that tool acquisition be a joint task.  When tools are acquired by IT without innovator input, we have found that no amount of “selling” will convince innovators that the time spent learning to use them will pay off in the end.

So, innovation managers need to work toward making tool acquisition a joint effort.  A strong lobbying effort to have one or more IT specialists report to R&D can pay dividends, as this liaison will understand the needs of innovators and upcoming innovation projects and can communicate these needs directly to the IT department.  Another approach is to invite IT staff members to attend corporate innovation presentations and request R&D representation at meetings where IT strategy is set.  Cross-fertilization of ideas and cooperation in execution is likely to occur when parties on each side are aware of each others priorities and constraints.  It is also important to establish a strong linkage between the advanced technology scanning group in the IT department and well-connected innovation specialists.  When the IT technology scanner identifies a technological advancement and reports it to the well-connected innovator, the innovator can identify potential projects in the company’s research stream that could use it, and can route the finding to people who would be most interested in pursuing it.

Conclusion

Although innovators and IT professionals tend to think in very different ways, for some innovation activities, especially innovation management, the cultural gap is not large.  For other activities, opportunities exist to bridge the gap.  The wise innovation manager can find ways to appropriately navigate or bridge this gap and thus maximize the value of IT in the innovation process by collaborating with the company’s IT department. We have found in our studies that the two decision factors described in this article can give useful guidelines as to how such collaboration can be effected.

By Steven Gordon and Monideepa Tarafdar

About the authors


Dr. Gordon is Professor of Information Technology Management at Babson College. From 2008 to 2010 he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Information Technology Case and Application Research.  Before arriving at Babson, Dr. Gordon founded and served as president of Beta Principles, Inc. He was also a consultant to the airline industry at Simat, Helliesen & Eichner, Inc. He holds a Ph.D. from MIT.

 

Monideepa Tarafdar is Associate Professor of Information Systems at the College of Business and Innovation, The University of Toledo. She researches and teaches various topics related to the management of Information Technology by organizations. She is Associate Editor at IT and People and Journal of IT Cases and Applications Research. She has a Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, India.

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