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How can CIOs drive innovation?

Three steps CIOs can take to help them take the lead in driving innovation in their organisations.

CIOs are responding to an uncertain business, economic and political environment by increasing agility, primarily by investing in more nimble technology platforms.

IT leaders have increased the adoption of enterprise-wide digital strategies by 52% in just two years, the 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey reveals.

As digital transformation is essentially technology-enabled and driven innovation, there is a real opportunity for CIOs to be out in front helping their businesses lead the agenda.

However, the survey found that in many cases this is not happening. When it comes to CIOs leading innovation across the business only a quarter of respondents reported that their CIOs are currently playing that role versus 60% who believed that they should be.

So what can CIOs do to foster innovation? There are likely to be many factors at play but in my view three actions can go a long way in driving innovation:

Promote a culture for innovation

Innovation is not a switch you can just turn on and off. You need to create an environment that encourages people to think and act creatively. Innovation leaders make time and space for people to focus on it by actually giving them time separate from their ‘day jobs’ to focus on side projects of their own. It can also mean setting up physical or even virtual spaces – an incubation lab if you like – where people can come and experiment with disruptive technologies and prototypes.

A culture of innovation also means accepting that sometimes things will fail. This doesn’t matter as long as you ‘fail fast’ and learn from what went wrong. This is perhaps antithetical to traditional IT culture where failure is to be avoided at all costs.

Fund innovation separately

If you don’t set aside a dedicated budget for innovation, funding for it is likely to get eaten up as other demands rise. Less than half (45%) of respondents had seen an IT budget increase over the last 12 months, or expected it to rise in the next 12 months. Amongst larger organisations, only 28% anticipated an increased budget. This means that ring-fencing budget for innovation is even more important – otherwise it could simply get squeezed.

There are creative ways to use the budget or make it go further. Some larger organisations have gone so far as to set up a venture capital fund to invest in innovative start-ups that form a good fit with their business or have relevant technology expertise. But another approach that organisations of any size can consider is to partner with others – a vendor perhaps or a university. In fact, partnering with innovative organisations was seen to be the second most popular strategy to boost innovation (52%), behind simply devoting more time to it (54%).

Engage with the business

Just as important as the first two points, it’s unlikely that IT has all the good ideas. Innovation is something that can come from across the organisation. IT can become a broker to help facilitate solutions – building an eco-system where the building blocks for new solutions can be assembled by cross-functional teams. For example, bring leaders from other parts of the organisation into an incubation lab and let them work with IT specialists or set up an initiative where an individual from the IT team works closely with someone from the business to solve a problem or create a new solution.

Innovation is harder than it looks. But the opportunity is there for CIOs to be instrumental in making it happen if they have the courage of their convictions and are prepared to step up and engage with their peers.

Marc Snyder is managing director, for the Technology Global Center of Excellence at KPMG. The 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey is the world’s largest survey of IT leadership.

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