IT staff are well positioned to kick-start and drive innovation across an organisation, according to Royal Mail chief information officer David Burden, who believes there are two elements to consider when organising for innovation in a business: corporate culture and the role of IT.
Instilling the will to innovate is a key factor in marrying the strengths of a large company with the kind of innovation found in smaller organisations, he said.
"We must reward success, but we must reward failure too. That is hard for all organisations," he said. Burden's previous company, Qantas, for example, had a quarterly award for the most creative effort that did not succeed.
"We need to give people the space, time, financial support and freedom to act," he said.
Technology has an important role in business innovation, said Burden. "Technology often enables innovation. IT people are connected across the business so they have the contacts and they know the real problems," he said.
"IT people are also prepared to take career risks and modest funds can usually be found within an IT department as no one really understands IT budgets. Most long-lasting value is created in skunk works [projects out of view of mainstream management].
"IT people are also used to dealing with innovative suppliers. They work in an area of fast growing innovation that percolates into in-house IT."
Burden said IT people are therefore well placed to lead innovation in the business, being a source of ideas, a catalyst, and in a position to engage and get those ideas through quickly to the business.
Royal Mail's Innovation Laboratory is a case in point. It is a staffed with facilitators to stimulate and encourage ideas in a structured but free flowing environment. It was set up by the IT research group and in 2002 transferred to the human resources department. A key point, however, is that the HR department could not have set up the facility without IT's expertise.
Another example quoted by Burden, to illustrate where an IT department's innovation was transferred elsewhere for successful routine operation, was from Qantas where the internet site was built in a skunk works but then moved to the commercial side of the business.
But Burden warned of the danger in thinking that internal innovation can be translated into sales revenue. "Some organisations have delusions of commercial grandeur," he said. "Often large companies have the idea of developing some technology, patenting it and launching in to a new world as an IT service or software application provider. There is very little evidence that this works for large companies - it is not what we do."
The challenge, he said, is recruiting and keeping people with innovative drive and helping them pick something up and drive it against the odds.
Quoting Canadian ice-hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, Burden said, "Those are the people who go where the puck is going to be, not where it is."