Innovation is what has driven the IT industry forward. The things that are the cornerstones of today’s IT: the Internet, Smartphones, Tablets, Cloud Computing, e-commerce, social networking; all these came about as a result of creative, value adding ideas being brought to market. Or in other words, through innovation.

But how to build a strategy that fosters innovation? How to ensure that your organisation can have the vision, the will and the structure to identify these new ideas, to decide which are the winners and to ensure that they turn into reality? This is a major challenge and I believe that to a great extent its comes down to a fundamental question: do you treat innovation as a culture or as a process?

Viewing innovation as a culture has much to recommend it. There is little doubt that the organisations with the greatest reputations has innovators in the IT industry, such as Apple, Google and Amazon, have done much to create a culture where employees are encouraged to look at things in new ways, to always seek new approaches and to always think “what if?”. But is this really their core skill?

To take Apple as an example, was the real genius of Steve Jobs the vision to develop an environment where the concepts behind iTunes, the iPhone and the iPad could be fostered, or was his genius the ability to identify these as potential winners, to bring them to market, to get them manufactured to a high standard of quality and to manage marketing and branding so that the customer where therefore willing to pay a premium price for them?

The answer of course is both. For example with the iPad, the idea of tablet computing was nothing new. Tablet based devices have been around for many years, even back to the 1980s, and indeed Apple had already tried and failed with a first iteration of the table: the Apple Newton. What Jobs succeeded in doing was to review the potential of the tablet in a whole new way. To create a vision of a device that, rather than being primarily focused at business users was an easy to use device to enable home users to access a variety of internet based applications.

But, having had that vision, he also had to bring it to market and this was to a great extent dependant on the technology being available to deliver the idea. He also had to ensure that the device built on the brand strength already established via Apple’s iPod and iPhone devices. It was only by doing all of these things that the innovation was identified, refined and successfully implemented. And now we see a further round of innovation as these devices move from the home to the business.

What lessons can one draw from all this? First and foremost, I believe that if you want to promote innovation in your organisation you need both a culture and a process. For all the (rightful) acclaim that Jobs received, he was never a one man band. He couldn’t have achieved what he did with the support of others, bouncing ideas off each other and challenging the thinking. To do this, you need to give people room to breathe, to think and to experiment. They have to be able to try out new ideas and develop new concepts.

They also need leadership and direction; an overall vision to work to, so that this experimentation remains appropriately focused. And this doesn’t need to be the preserve of a chosen elite. In my experience, the very best ideas can often come from the grass roots, but if the people working in these roles don’t see a role for themselves as innovators and don’t have a clear vision to work to, they are unlikely to put their ideas forward, even if they have the time and motivation to formulate such ideas.

On the other hand, without a good process, ideas will go nowhere. Innovation isn’t just about everyone happily brainstorming out new concepts. It is about evaluating these concepts. Identifying the potential winners and developing them. This is really critical to the whole creative process; with a clear view that their ideas will be properly looked at that some, at least, will be progressed, people are very unlikely to bother with putting ideas forward.

In other words, innovation is a true fusion of process and culture and in order to build a true innovating organisation and it is vital to get both right.

About the author

Adam Davison MBCS CITP has an MSc in IT from the University of Aston and has filled a variety of senior IT strategy roles for organisations such as E.ON and Esso. See his LinkedIn profile