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.

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The methodology is the company's secret sauce for experimentation, says CIO Bob Krestakos. "IDEO is kind of our mentor in terms of design thinking methodologies," he says. "That methodology is applied to various areas of the business. It creates some of the ideas that we follow up on."

IDEO's philosophy is that virtually everyone has the capacity to innovate, but over time, people tend to lose their belief in their own creativity. Techniques such as defining problems through direct observation, developing empathy, encouraging people to come up with many ideas quickly, and fostering collaboration among colleagues with radically different viewpoints all help people regain their creative confidence.

The group comes up with three to five projects that they will work on for three to five months, depending on the experiment's complexity and promise.

The company recently found success experimenting with RFID technology as a way to improve its lean manufacturing model, says Krestakos. As the first deployment of the technology rolls out in North America, the company is developing prototypes of other RFID-based systems in an effort to find more applications. "It has really snowballed into something that I think can be really significant," he adds.

But Krestakos says it's important to balance innovation projects and other IT responsibilities. Otherwise, resource constraints on either end can cause conflicts.

"IT organizations have their own projects, commitments and timetables, and innovation can sometimes be seen as a distraction," Krestakos explains. "So we don't want to have too many things in flight from an innovation standpoint, but enough to keep us busy and thinking about what's possible."

In many cases, partners can help organizations bridge resource gaps. For example, Steelcase often enlists the MIT Media Lab and its more than 140 master's degree and Ph.D. student researchers to harness "outside thinking" and help Steelcase formulate hypotheses and conduct research that goes along with an idea, Krestakos adds.

Still, all Steelcase employees have the opportunity to come up with ideas and participate in experiments if they wish, and their enthusiasm for innovation work continues to grow.

"It's starting to feel like [innovation] is not just centered in one part of the organization. Anyone can participate," Krestakos says. "I think that's critically important to [building] optimism inside the organization."

For its part, Hertz seeks innovative ideas from all corners of the organization as a way to stay ahead in the rental car race. "We're making some big bets [on innovation], and that's exciting," Eckroth says. "If you're not willing to do that, you have to be willing to become a commodity and run in second or third place."

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at stcollett@comcast.net.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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