CIO interview: Innovation the key for IT

Innovation is the single most important task for public sector IT departments as they face years of cuts, according to a senior government CIO.

Speaking at an OpenSoho event, Mark O'Neill, CIO at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, advised business leaders on how to foster and encourage innovation, and highlighted its importance during an economic downturn.

"It might be a bit strange to see a government CIO standing up and talking about innovation," he said, "but whether you're a small or large organisation the same issues come up again and again."

The challenges include finding and promoting innovation, getting people to have ideas, and finding a way of applying these ideas and taking them forward.

O'Neill offered several ideas on how to do this. He said that organisations could take individual products and try different ways of looking at and using them. He suggested looking at things "as though you've just arrived from Mars" was a good way of innovating. And he recommended imagining that the world doesn't exist and you are starting with something completely new.

The great examples of innovation he gave included Google's search engine and BT's fibre optics.

"Part of the answer is to let go of all your assumptions," O'Neill said. "Business processes can be problematic and laden with all kinds of emotions. People can get incredibly attached to the most boring processes. How do you shift people?"

Innovation, he said, boiled down to "looking at the world with a new pair of eyes", although he warned that it should not be confused with entrepreneurialism.

Moving from the idea stage to delivery was a big challenge, he said, and staff could go one of two ways.

Staff can get very enthusiastic and excited about a new process or product at the beginning; in which case the question is how to make the innovation become "business as usual".

The other staff response was massive inertia, with an attachment to established ways of doing things providing a barrier to adopting an innovation.

O'Neill said the answer was to think through the transition process carefully, choosing a path that would suit the innovation in question.

"The way you go from innovator to entrepreneur is by asking yourself how you transition from the idea to the process."

In an interview with Computer Weekly after his speech, he said that one of the biggest challenges he expected to face in the coming year was the continuing battle to get IT high on the business agenda, as an integral part of an organisation's overall strategy.

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