Can CIOs innovate with no budget?

lightbulb on pile of coinsThe need for organisations to innovate is not new. Businesses have always had to develop new ways of working, improve their existing products and services, and create new types of offerings to stay competitive. But as more organisations start to embrace the opportunities and threats of the digital world, it is clear that innovation is being given a much higher priority by CEOs and their boards.

Digital is changing the way markets operate and how customers behave. Customers have more choice than ever before and, in some cases, they can move to an alternative supplier in the time it takes to download an app. Digital products and services have shorter lifecycles than traditional products and services. They are developed and launched in shorter timescales and are updated, upgraded and replaced more frequently. And digital markets move quickly, they are more dynamic than traditional markets and they can be disrupted more easily. New technology-enabled business models can be developed and launched far more quickly than has previously been possible.

As a result, the ability to innovate on a continual basis is key to an organisation’s survival in the digital world. Some organisations are addressing the need to innovate by creating labs, incubators and other programmes that give them access to ideas and solutions created by start-ups. For example, last year Barclays launched an accelerator programme to find innovative financial services technology solutions. Over a 13-week period groups of start-ups are given the use of Barclays offices and are provided with access to Barclays data and technology, mentoring and coaching from industry experts, support from Techstars, an organisation that specialises in supporting and funding technology start-ups, and the opportunity to pitch their ideas to Barclays executives and other potential clients at the end of the process.

Coca-Cola, John Lewis, NBCUniversal, Mastercard, Citi Group, Deutsche Bank, American Express, Telstra and Guardian News and Media to name just a few have also established lab-based innovation schemes over the last couple of years.

Front cover advertGiven the role that technology plays in digital, it is not surprising that the CIO is often expected to play a leading role in their organisation’s innovation efforts. But the typical CIO does not have the budget to create and support a lab programme. The businesses mentioned above are some of the largest organisations in their industries if not the world, and they have IT budgets that are bigger than the turnover of many companies. Yet the CIOs of organisations that do not spend such large sums on IT are still expected to be innovative and are often criticised when they fail to deliver new ideas or solutions.

Fortunately there are things that CIOs can do to encourage, prompt and support innovation in their organisation that cost very little, if anything, other than staff time. Here are five examples:

  1. Engage with start-ups: as the large organisations that are funding lab programmes have shown, start-ups are a valuable source of innovative ideas. CIOs can engage with the start-up community in a variety of ways that does not impact their budget but which still gives them access to new thinking. This can range from just meeting with different start-ups on a regular basis through to providing access to key personnel within the organisation that can advise a start-up, or facilitating meetings with the organisation’s customers and suppliers to provide contacts, insights and information. Or the CIO could provide a start-up with access to the company’s data, allow IT staff to collaborate with a start-up or offer to pilot new products within their business.
  2. Give IT staff time for innovation projects: there are many reasons why CIOs should encourage IT staff to spend time with the rest of the business and/or with customers. As well as helping the IT department to improve its understanding of the rest of the business and develop relationships, it is also a way for IT staff to identify opportunities for using technology to solve problems, improve performance, enhance the customer experience etc. CIOs should challenge their staff to identify such opportunities and then allow them time away from their day-to-day duties to research potential solutions, develop a proposal and, if appropriate, build a proof of concept or run a pilot to test their idea.
  3. Run innovation workshops: it is often the case that the organisation’s own staff are the best source of new ideas. They understand the business, its customers and where it can improve how it operates. CIOs should establish a regular and ongoing schedule of innovation workshops covering different topics or challenges. Such workshops should involve a cross-section of staff, be led by a trained facilitator and be based on standard/structured techniques for generating ideas. It is also important to have commitment to, and a process for, developing the most promising ideas outside of the workshops, and for communicating progress, successes and benefits once they have been implemented.
  4. Use crowdsourcing: many companies are using the crowdsourcing principle internally to facilitate innovation. In its simplest form crowdsourcing within the organisation can be the modern equivalent of the staff suggestion box. But with a crowdsourcing tool it can be extended to allow staff to share and develop ideas, vote for which ideas should be funded and even “invest” virtual money to fund the development of an idea. Used in this way crowdsourcing can be powerful and efficient way of generating, vetting and developing a large number of ideas in a way that engages and involves staff throughout the organisation.
  5. Look outside the organisation: other businesses and industries can be a good source of ideas for innovation. CIOs and their teams should spend time looking beyond their traditional competitors and markets to see how other companies are using technology to enable new products and services, enhance the customer experience or transform how they operate. Whilst these examples may not be directly transferable to their own organisation there are likely to be aspects or principles that CIOs can extract and apply to their own business.

Digital has increased the importance of innovation. And many businesses are responding by investing large sums in programmes that give them access to the ideas and solutions of start-ups. But CIOs can drive their organisation’s innovation efforts regardless of the size of their budgets; creating the right environment for innovation, giving staff time to be creative and being open minded to where ideas come from and how they are developed can also lead to innovative ideas that will help the business compete in the digital world.

If your organisation wants to transform for digital or if it wants to generate a pipeline of ideas for digital innovation then please contact me or visit my website,


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