IT directors need to marshal innovation

Keep the business informed of IT developments so you are not seen as a barrier to new plans

Keep the business informed of IT developments so you are not seen as a barrier to new plans.

For IT directors and managers, innovation matters. Usually they have two primary responsibilities: to support business innovation and to keep the IT operations running efficiently and economically.

As IT embeds itself ever more deeply in the activities of a business, IT executives are increasingly finding that IT is no longer their sole domain and that their department needs to partner with other business units on an equal footing. IT projects become business projects and IT skills intermingle with business skills.

Things ain't what they used to be. A sea change occurred which began with the advent of the ubiquitous PC and accelerated with the internet, bringing to an end the days of the IT fiefdoms.

In many organisations, IT now needs to repeatedly demonstrate its relevance and it can only do this effectively by delivering business benefit. In operational matters, it is likely to be on the defensive, even if it is doing well. People only tend to notice how well systems are managed when there are problems.

However, when new business capabilities are prompted and successfully implemented by IT, everyone notices. IT executives are quite capable of making contributions in this way and sometimes do.

For example, when the internet became ubiquitous, Tony Piper, IT director of Pinnacle Insurance, saw an opportunity for his company, which sells unemployment insurance.

The thinking was simple. If you reduce the time between becoming unemployed and getting employed, you reduce the cost of claims. So Piper set up and built a website specifically designed to assist policy holders who became redundant to get jobs. It was a straightforward idea, although not entirely simple to execute, because it involved aggregating information from many jobs sites.

Piper also noticed from policy holders' records that about 20% of them had provided mobile phone numbers. He was aware that a good percentage of calls to the Pinnacle call centre were from customers wanting to know when a claims payment was to be made. He therefore implemented a project to pre-empt some of the call centre traffic by notifying customers about the progress of any claim through SMS messaging.

The benefit is a simple cost reduction. An SMS message costs about 5p and calls to the call centre cost about £2.50. The potential cost saving is high.

Both of these ideas are obvious in retrospect, but they are far more likely to come from an IT executive who has been keeping an eye on the needs of the business than any other member of the management team. Neither of these projects involved a large investment and they stood a chance of delivering business benefit quickly. This is the kind of thing that IT directors can do to gain positive visibility.

IT executives are better placed than other managers to come up with ideas like this, providing they monitor the way the IT industry is evolving. Despite the dotcom collapse, new ideas and products still appear regularly both from the US and Europe. For the sake of credibility, the IT executive needs to be well informed about them.

However, I would advocate that he or she needs to become a direct channel for helping fellow executives to understand what is possible with current technologies. To be proactive rather than reactive.

The major business projects for most organisations will rarely originate in the IT department, and the IT department cannot afford to be seen as a barrier to such initiatives. It is better to keep other departments informed than have to oppose ideas that are sound in business terms but immature in technology terms.

Robin Bloor is chief executive at Bloor Research

Getting wired: tell us the future   

Who would have thought in 1990 that the World Wide Web would become a killer internet application, transforming the way we work, play and communicate? This global revolution began when Tim Berners-Lee wrote the original World Wide Web specification at Cern in a research project designed to distribute documents.  

Research work being undertaken at universities today  will change the way we use IT, and Computer Weekly is on a mission to showcase the cutting-edge IT research currently being conducted in the UK.  

Computer Weekly would like to hear from researchers who think they might have made a breakthrough. Each week we will feature innovation in the field of IT, giving a glimpse of how IT will evolve in the coming years.   E-mail cliff.saran@rbi.co.uk

Read more on IT innovation, research and development

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