Ready, set, compete: The benefits of IT innovation

In the new 'fail fast and move on' world of business, IT is learning to quickly tap into creative ideas and harness the power of innovation for competitive advantage.

A few years ago, Hertz learned that innovation isn't just a luxury to be taken out for a test drive now and then, but rather a business imperative. Without new ideas constantly in the pipeline, the car rental giant would get run over by its competitors.

"We get copied a lot," says CIO Joseph Eckroth. "Our competitors see [our innovations], and six months to a year later, they're introducing their own versions of it. Speed of thought and speed to market are absolutely critical for us to keep our lead. If we stop, we're dead."

Hertz isn't the only company that hears its competitors' footsteps and is relying on innovation to maintain its edge. Indeed, a loosening up of IT budgets and the race for competitive advantage in a post-recession world, coupled with a flood of new technology platforms, have created the perfect storm for business innovation.

According to Computerworld's Forecast 2013 survey, there's a sense of cautious optimism as IT organizations move into the new year. For instance, 43% of the 334 respondents said they're seeing an increase in their IT budgets, versus 36% last year. And 64% reported that they plan to make a major IT purchase or upgrade in the next 12 months, up from 60% last year.

But these days, innovators must play by a new set of rules. IT leaders find themselves taking a fresh look at project management and resource planning as they seek to accommodate business demands for speed to market while assessing a deluge of new tools driven by new technologies. Developing the "next big thing" requires fearlessness, a fast pace and a fascination with new ideas, not to mention reliable partners and an open-minded team of professionals who can imagine the possibilities -- a tall order in an often "command and control" IT environment.

Here's a look at how four IT executives have learned to "fail fast and move on" with innovation while maintaining a competitive advantage in a cutthroat marketplace.

Seeking the Ultimate Guest Experience in 'Lab Hotels'

The next time you visit a Hyatt hotel, you may be part of one of its experiments to improve the customer experience, perhaps without even knowing it. Hyatt Hotels and Resorts wants to reinvent the art of hospitality through technology. So it has identified eight "lab hotels" -- four in the U.S., four abroad -- where John Prusnick, director of IT innovation and strategy, leads major, "disruptive" IT experiments.

"We're not looking at just wanting to improve upon current solutions," Prusnick explains. "We're trying to come up with ideas that are transformative."

At any time, there are seven to nine unique projects under way at the lab hotels, and IT spends no more than 90 days on any one idea. Failure is definitely an option.

"Quite honestly, almost every idea fails fast. The solution we settle on relies on iterations of the original idea. Many times, perhaps as high as 60% of the time, we find that we revisit the original idea and find the solution to be something completely different," says Prusnick. The projects that don't make the big time are chalked up to "return on experience" rather than ROI, he adds.

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