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Lessons in Innovation: A Report From the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium

by Dave Hannon

May 23, 2013

By Dave Hannon

In opening the day's first panel at the MIT CIO Symposium yesterday, moderator Joe Chung of Redstar Ventures fooled us. While discussing the CEO's role in driving innovation, he told a story about how innovation giant Apple was way too far in front of the curve with a new mobile technology. Odd, right? Because most people think of Apple as being the very model for timing the launch of a new mobile device.

But Chung wasn't talking about the iPhone. Or the iPad. Or the iPod. He was talking about the Newton. The Apple Newton, a PDA released in 1993, when the term PDA meant something very different. "It just didn't work," Chung said of the $100 million venture spearheaded by then Apple CEO John Sculley.

So what's the lesson there? Apple didn't simply stop innovating. It kept coming at it and later developed the mobile device that changed the world. While Chung fooled us all with his Newton story, it led in to the question of the day: How can innovation be groomed in an organization and particularly, what role can the CIO serve in that process?

During the CEO panel, for example, Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai Technologies, emphasized the danger of the HIPPO effect, where the highest paid person in the organization present in the room gets final say on an idea. "Innovation is like a spark in that it can be extinguished quite easily. One person just has to say 'no' and an idea is dead. So for innovation to flourish, you need to fan the flames." 
To help fan those flames at his company, Leighton hosts an Innovation Showcase each quarter where innovative ideas from within Akamai--a product, business process improvement, anything--are showcased.

Kazu Gomi, CEO of NTT America, pointed out that the top priority for CIOs today is bringing more value to their companies and the best way to do that is by leading and encouraging innovation that creates more efficiency and better products or services.

The members of the CIO panel later in the morning put a finer point on that theme. Michael Golz, SVP and CIO Americas for SAP, said the "SAP Runs SAP" strategy has been very effective in helping drive innovation throughout the company. Not only does it provide early and educated feedback on new products, but it also lets the CIO talk to customers and early adopters as peers -- both users of the same technology. (He even used one of my least favorite business expressions -- "open the kimono" to describe it).

Golz also pointed to an internal "gallery" of apps that SAP uses to encourage employees to be more innovative. In fact, he pointed out that a single sign-on app that is used in nearly all SAP products today was actually developed by a young employee in SAP purchasing.

In short, Golz said, IT has to change its perception from being an internal service to being a key part of the business. But to do that, a lot has to change. Panelist Georgia Papathomas, VP and CIO of Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals, pointed out that "one of the problems with IT is that everything takes too long." Leveraging new technology like cloud and mobile, however, can make the average IT organization much more agile in its work, so that the business doesn't want to make its decisions without IT's involvement.

Another way that both Golz and Papathomas agreed IT can change its perception is with language. "Our biggest challenge is to get IT not to talk 'IT' because we talk a language the business does not," Papathomas said. Golz added that providing new technology to high-level executives in the business first can be an effective method of spreading the technology rather than starting at the user level.
Along those lines, in an afternoon panel focusing on agility, Michael Relich, EVP and CIO at Guess Inc. described a project where he hired a graphic designer to build Hollywood-themed dashboards for a more user-friendly feel that tied rich media to deep data.

It was an informative day and by the end of it all, the message was clear -- the key to IT and the CIO driving innovation across the business is to develop its relationship with the business more. Because you just never know where the next great idea may come from.

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