Innovation in IT

More often than not I hear a complaint that corporate IT departments are not innovative enough. Sure, mostly their 'innovation' consists of allowing iPhones to access the email backend systems or implementing an add-on to the existing CRM system. Sometimes they even organize a Hackathon. But nothing earth shattering comes out of it. So the critics have a point. Then again my response usually is that they should give their IT guys some credit and, more importantly, that everyone gets the IT group they deserve. Let's think for a moment about the benchmark in innovative technology nowadays, the epitome of innovation if you will: The Silicon Valley startup. Why is it working there and not in our IT group you might ask yourself. I hate to break it to you but the humongous difference is that Silicon Valley rewards risk-taking whereas most corporate cultures fear it. Silicon Valley venture capitalists know they are taking a risk. They know that the vast majority of their investments will fail but that the one or two percent which make it through will yield a return that is big enough to cover the losses and make for a nice living. So if an investor sinks money nine times out of ten that's not really an issue in the grander scheme of things. Now take your average corporate IT Vice President on the other hand. First of all corporations are on average still doing a terrible job to quantify return on investment when it comes to IT projects. More often than not going into a project you won't even find a definition of the projects goals and metrics to track progress. So basically you are flying blind. Since you can't (or don't) measure return what do you think poor VP is being measured on? Can you keep the lights on with X dollars[^1]. Sounds harsh? As I said, you get the IT group you deserve.

So what do you think would happen if said VP all of a sudden would start to throw money into a black hole out of which a successful, innovative project might emerge? Success in terms of returns, by the way is a bit more difficult to achieve in a corporate context because the growth potential of your in-company startup is limited and part of the startup appeal is that they are about rapid growth. So first, you'd have no success metrics so there'd be no way to actually prove the initiatives success. Though luck right? Secondly, no one would care. What our poor VP would hear is that he lost a lot of money on unsuccessful projects [^2], that that had a dramatic effect on the bottom line of the company (no money to give back) and please see yourself out, security will bring your stuff down to the parking lot in a few moments. Again, if this sounds too harsh - you only get what you deserve. If you start to view your IT as a strategic asset that needs careful nurturing and room to grow: perfect. You'll get good people who will take risks but not sink your money for no reason. If however your IT group is a cost factor you'd like to get rid of sooner rather than later then don't expect to get a big return on your investment.

[^1]: X dollars is an arbitrarily chosen number based on arcane financial magic that involves last years IT spend, projected revenue growth projections, strategic planning efforts, how the CEOs last golf outing went, a crystal ball, a talking raven, cat hair, mouse blood, bat crap and a few other ingredients. [^2]: It is fairly easy to ascertain failure in a corporate environment as far as I can tell.

© 2013-2014 Henning Hoyer