Zen and the art of innovation to drive business success

15 Jun 2011

In a world where Facebook and Twitter have been used to organise pro-democracy uprisings against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and in which China will re-emerge as the world’s dominant economy after a 500-year absence, no one can truly corner the market on innovation. But you’ll need to innovate to survive.

Irish CIOs (chief information officers) are more bullish about the role technology innovation can play in driving business success, a new survey released this week by Harvey Nash reveals. Some 72pc of Irish CIOs see “great potential” compared with a global average of 67pc.

This approach supports a strong perception of the role for technology, where 66pc of Irish CIOs see IT as essential to organisational competitiveness. Fifty-three per cent see IT helping shape wider business goals and 78pc of Irish CIOs believe IT is able to assimilate timely information to support business decision making. Irish CIOs report greater success at delivering technology innovation, with 42pc “fully” or “mostly” achieving success in innovation projects, compared with 31pc globally.

The report was unveiled last night in Dublin by Harvey Nash CEO Albert Ellis, who pointed out that many of the innovations CIOs used to dream about a decade ago are here today.

“The technology, mobile and human element have come together,” he said, pointing to the massive pace of change that has occurred in the last two years alone, both within the technology industry and because of the technology industry.

“Nokia was a leader in mobile, now Apple is. People are going to jail because of their role in the dissemination of information via Twitter. Anonymous has brought down MasterCard, PayPal and the IMF.

“We’re seeing the internet’s first martyrs, people are dying to put their information online. None of us could have forecast any of this in the last 12 months,” Ellis said.

In terms of the role of CIOs in organisations that want to survive in this rapidly changing environment, Ellis pointed out that the sense of vulnerability among CIOs as a result of the recent spate of cyber attacks is quite high.

“Some 75pc of CIOs believe their company’s market share will be lost without some form of innovation,” Ellis said.

The CIOs that will survive, he said, will be the ones who can strike a balance between running IT as a utility, just like electricity, and at the same time doing new things for the business.

“To thrive and succeed, the CIO will need to be able to master both; in particular, to adapt and move as a business as the market moves.

“Real-time intelligence will be key,” he said.

Innovation defines Realex Payments

At the event, Colm Lyon, CEO of payment firm Realex Payments and who is driving a new online payments and banking venture, Carapay, outlined how a fast-growth firm manages change.

Lyon had previously held a senior IT role with Ulster Bank before starting Realex Payments. He said many of his experiences and motivations behind innovation forged his outlook on how to approach the creation of innovative products.

“Innovation has to be part of the organisation. People think that innovation is the product, but the lesson I’ve learned is that your innovation today could be a commodity tomorrow.

“For us, innovation has to go behind the product. It is about how we sell, how we are organised. The processes and structures of our organisation have to be innovative. The manner in which we sell is highly innovative. When we sell our products we start by talking about the culture of the company, rather than the product. We talk about capability differentiation and position differentiation.”

Lyon said that every new hire at the company has to, after their first year at Realex Payments, pass an exam at the Realex Academy. “Anyone who doesn’t get past 85pc has missed the point of what we are about,” he said.

Realex manages its innovation by breaking product teams into smaller units consisting of developers, analysts and salespeople, Lyon said.

IT will be central to the world of electricity

The CIO of Irish renewable energy company Mainstream Renewables, John Shaw, pointed out that the world is going through a once-off change. “China is now the world’s largest energy consumer and each week it consumes an extra 14,000 megawatts, that’s three times Ireland’s capacity. The world we are facing into will require a supergrid. The problems in Japan frightened the industry.”

Shaw said that renewable energy – offshore wind in particular – will be critical. IT is central to the world of electricity, the industry will digitise itself. Its all about spending those investment euros more wisely. There will be a US$6trn investment in energy in the next decade, and 5pc of that will be in IT.”

Shaw innovated by transforming the traditional technology buying relationship between technology companies and their customers by structuring Mainstream’s relationship with Microsoft into a strategic partnership.

Shaw said that as demonstrated by Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs consistently, innovation is all about that healthy tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘wow’.

“Many start-ups have great ideas but fail and die. Many businesses with hierarchies end up stifling free thought and they die, too. Our strategy is about enabling the business, are you positioning yourself to win or lose?”

The changes we face, Shaw added, are already happening. “Globally, there are 5bn users of IT. We live in a world where, in recent months, Facebook toppled Mubarak. In the coming years, 80pc of computer processors in the world won’t have human interaction. The trends are already here.

“China – which was the world’s leading economy in 1500 – is back today as the world’s second-leading economy. The Chinese characters for crisis actually mean ‘danger’ and opportunity’.

“Business leaders need to decide to innovate or fade away.”

Analytics is leading firms out of recession

Accenture’s Paul Pierotti pointed to the increased importance of analytics and the role it will play in innovation. “Organisations that are heavy users of analytics outperform their peers. Those that have invested in analytics are coming out of recession quicker than those that don’t.”

Pierotti said there’s a strong case for the use of analytics to resolve Ireland’s ongoing problems in the healthcare sector and pointed to areas such as emergency departments that actually could transform themselves and remove bottlenecks through analytics and planning.

“Emergency department performance in Ireland is inexcusable. People say you can’t predict emergencies. I disagree, emergency presentations are more predictable than elective presentations in hospitals because you can analyse factors like time of year, weather, etc. There are lots of predictive characteristics around healthcare but unfortunately decision makers have so far decided not to take this approach.”

No one can truly corner the market on innovation, Google says

The managing director of Media Platforms for Northern and Central Europe at Google Damian Lawlor pointed out that every company or organisation in the world can be an innovative entity.

“Some of the world’s most innovative companies didn’t invent what they sold. Apple didn’t invent the PC, Digital did, but Apple saw the opportunity transformed. Google didn’t invent search or advertising but we decided we had to make search more relevant to the user. Facebook didn’t invent the social network, Zynga didn’t invent online gaming.

“The business opportunities that can be gained by figuring out and solving problems is a great opportunity for such an innovative country as Ireland.

“At Google, innovation is all about people. We hire bright people to solve big problems. What you do is nothing unless you can have great people who can follow through and innovate.”

Lawlor illustrated his point by pointing to Google’s decision just three or four years ago to enter mobile with Android. “(Then-CEO) Eric Schmidt said we had bought this company called Android and we’d have it on two or three phones by the end of 2008. A year later, we had it on eight devices. Currently, Android sits on 95 mobile devices. The key is to think big, bet on big trends, establish a principle of ‘yes we can’ and launch early and often,” Lawlor said.

Photo: Harvey Nash CEO Albert Ellis

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years