How do you define IT innovation?

Posted in: Business Insights

Find out how the experts answered at Pythian’s Velocity of Innovation event in San Francisco

Once again, I had the pleasure of moderating another Velocity of Innovation event this past November in San Francisco. Both panelists and guests brought with them a varied range of insights, experiences and perspectives. And as always, this resulted in a thoughtful and lively discussion.

The format of these events is to put three IT leaders with expertise in a particular area in a room, and start a conversation. With our Velocity events, we always start our discussions with a few questions, and the panelists provide some answers. But the idea is to get a conversation going between the audience and panelists.

That day, we discussed a range of subjects from IT innovation, to security, to our favourite wrap-up topic: taking a look into the IT crystal ball and commenting on what current technology trends will really take hold in the future. This last one is always a lot of fun. In this blog post I will provide just some of the highlights from the first discussion topic at the event: innovation and agility in IT.

On our panel were three IT experts:

Sean Rich is the director of IT at Mozilla, leading their application services group. He takes care of web operations, along with pretty much everything data related.

Cory Isaacson is the CTO at RMS. Isaacson runs the software design and technology strategy at RMS.

Aaron Lee is Pythian’s VP of transformation services. He runs a team that specializes in helping clients harness technology to deliver real outcomes. Usually they involve things like big data, DevOps, cloud, advanced analytics. He’s involved in some of the most leading edge initiatives for Pythian customers.

I started the discussion by asking the panel, and the audience members, to discuss the notions of innovation and agility, and to try to describe what they have explicitly done to improve innovation and to make their own organizations and those of their customers more agile.

Cory: My business evaluates risk. Our customers are the biggest insurance companies in the world. We run catastrophe models for them so that we can actually see what an earthquake might cost them or a hurricane, for example. I run technology for the company and have to build all the software. We’re innovating tremendously and so now it’s funny because our executives ask us to evaluate the risk of our own projects. We’re trying to do some very, very innovative things. I don’t know if any of you have an insurance background, but it’s not the most up-to-date industry when it comes to technology. As you know it’s been around a long, long time. But at my company some of the things that we’re trying to do are, honestly, more advanced than most other things I’ve ever seen in my career. And that’s why I took the position. But when you’re doing innovation, it is risky. There’s no way around it. There are a lot to evaluate: from different algorithms to the risk models and the catastrophe models. How do you evaluate them? Can you actually run them? We’re going from a 25-year-old desktop application, running on Microsoft SQL server to a cloud-based implementation. We’re taking thousands of servers and trying to move all the customers into a cloud implementation.

Sean: In my role I’m interpreting it a little bit differently. Innovation is doing something new. In an effort toward agility, one of the things that we’re doing within our organization is enabling the agility of our business partners, by changing our own operating model. Traditional IT where we run all the services and infrastructure necessary to drive the business, actually taking more of an enabler or a partnership approach where we’re doing things like encouraging shadow IT, encouraging the use of SaaS applications and helping them really do that better through different service offerings like vendor management or change management when it comes to user adoption of certain platforms, data integration so that when we have work flows that span multiple areas of the business, we can complete those without moving data around manually and some of the other problems that come with that. That’s one way that we’re doing new things, looking at ourselves differently, what new capabilities do we need to develop, processes, tools and skills to enable agility for our marketing group or our product lines, as an example. That’s a little bit of one way I think about it.

Then I asked: What gets in the way of agility?

Aaron: I think it’s interesting considering we used to improve innovation by looking right at the root of the motivation for it. Why are we going down this path, trying to innovate something and what is the value of that thing we’re trying to innovate? It’s my belief that the thing that we should value in our colleagues is their judgment. The pre-conditions for being able to offer judgment are you need to be fully informed, you need to be aligned with an objective, there needs to be a reason and even an incentive to offer that kind of input. If the shared goals around innovation opportunities aren’t defined in a way that actually lead to success over time, then the business is just like any other organism: it gets its fingers burned, it starts to get more risk adverse and then it becomes harder and harder to execute any kind of change agenda. Planning in a way that is likely to have a good long-term outcome, even at the outset of any sort of initiative, is one key success criteria that we put in place to help ourselves and our customers get to a good place.

Attendee 1: Established companies who have the ability to have long-term leaders are losing the race because they’re not agile. Those leaders need to transform in their mind first to say, “This is something that needs to be done,” and commit to it and take maintain an attitude where, having given that direction, don’t penalize employees for failure as they run small experiments. A lot of companies have, complex projects where they spin-off a small team, say, “You go do whatever you want and we are going to give you some limited funding, but we are not going to ask you for results.” CEOs and COOs are looking for, “If I spend 10 million bucks, what am I going to get for it?” When you focus on bottom line results, then you hide the cost of innovation.

Sean: Yeah, it’s culturally endemic, sort of near-term focus on success instead of on the long term and the impact that has on innovation.

Cory: There are some companies, like Google who have been known to allow an engineer to take a day a week or a day every two weeks and just look at things. I think though, the challenge is you have to get your organization up to the point where this is an economically viable thing to do. That’d be something I’d love to do with our team, but they’re so stressed out on getting the next thing done. Once we get more ahead of the curve, I think we could do that kind of thing.

The discussion went on to cover operationalizing innovation, or making it a program within an organization, before we moved on to other similarly thought-provoking subjects.

Interested in being a part of a discussion like this one? VELOCITY OF INNOVATION is a series of thought-leadership events for senior IT management hosted by Pythian. Pythian invites leading IT innovators to participate in discussions about today’s disruptive technologies: big data, cloud, advanced analytics, DevOps, and more. These events are by invitation only.

If you are interested in attending an upcoming Velocity of Innovation event in a city near you, please contact events@pythian.com.

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About the Author

Lynda Partner is a self-professed data addict and experiences the power of data every day as Pythian’s Vice President of Analytics-as-a-Service. The author of Pythian’s Love Your Data mantra, Lynda understands very well how data can transform companies into competitive winners and she was the driving force in adding an analytics practice to Pythian’s database focus. Lynda works with companies around the world and across industries to turn data into insights, predictions and products, and is the co-author of Designing Cloud Platforms.

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