IT as an Impediment to Innovation

Over the past decade, much is being said about IT being the enabler of innovation within organizations.  I certainly am firmly in that camp.  In fact, I don’t view it as one of our jobs, to enable our customers to innovate, I view it as our only job.

But as I go around speaking to customers about our bright future with Force.com, a thought began to formulate in my mind.  It is something that I suppose I always knew, but only now does it begin to take shape into something I can actually state, and therefore, tackle.

If IT is supposed to be the enabler of innovation, then doesn’t that mean that the opposite is true as well?  That IT can be an impediment to innovation?  Lately, I find that it is exactly the case, and as I reflect back on my 19 year IT career, I find that to be the case universally.

Naturally, IT is not the only reason why companies do not innovate.  But sometimes, just sometimes, we have a much greater impact than we think.  And our obstructionism occurs in roughly two ways.

First way is by erecting a direct barrier – we just say no.  When our customers come to us and ask us to do something, we say we can’t do it, or we won’t do it, or we can’t do it now, but we say no.

Most certainly, the reasons for us saying no can be very valid, and they all boil down to us not having enough resources to satisfy every request.  On my awesome web team, we have departments lining up out the proverbial door but virtually every request that comes in now will have to go into a 6-9 months waiting list because we only have so many project managers/developers/content editors.  Years ago, I remember sitting in a meeting where one of the floor traders was trying to pitch an idea to allow the company’s customers to make their own trades through computers, and the IT director shut it down because the technology to implement such a capability was too new, too risky, and would “break a lot of existing things”.   In only 2 short years, online trading exploded.

We say no.  Sometimes we really want to say yes but can’t; and sometimes, we truly believe that no is the right answer, but we say no, and so put up a barrier to innovation.

The second way we impede innovation is more subtle, and far more evil.  Not meaning to compare our customers to elephants, but I’m reminded of the experiment where if you keep an elephant tied to a pole long enough, pretty soon you can remove the rope and the elephant will never leave the vicinity of the pole, to the point of dying of hunger.

After constantly being forced to say no to customer requests, what I find is that we actually condition our customers to temper their outside the box thinking.  They already know what our limitations are, because we keep talking about them as justifications for our nos.  And so when they think of how they can improve their business, they inevitably self-sensor.  I often hear that in meetings “that’s a great idea, but IT can’t do it” at which point we solemnly nod and inwardly pat ourselves on the back for doing a good job of marketing what we do and how we do things.

Two things are important to note here.

IT is not the only group that does this.  How many times have you said: “yes, I’d like to be able to do this, but legal/accounting/HR/Marketing won’t allow it or will make it difficult, so I won’t even try it?”

Also, the inevitable argument that customers still bring all sorts of requests to us means that we’re not as bad as I think we are.  My only response to that is customers are not bringing us innovative ideas.  They bring us pain points that came to the point of where they don’t want to deal with them, or they heard somewhere that someone else solved it.  In other words, they come to us out of necessity.  They bring their wacky problems and make outrageous requests just to help them get their job done, which to me is not at all the definition for innovation.

This creates a problem where whenever anyone is asked to think about creating a truly innovative idea, they self-sensor because they have been conditioned to do so by IT/HR/legal/accounting/Marketing/etc.

As I find that virtually all of the readers of my blog are people with whom I interact on regular basis, I look forward to hearing what you think about this.  There isn’t much we can do in the near term about other departments (except to show them how it’s done), but there is something we can do about us being the impediment to innovation. Because if we can have a discussion about IT’s role as enabler of innovation and if we should strive to be that, but it is undeniable to me that the role we do assume is one of a barrier to innovation.

As Eldridge Cleaver said: “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”

About Vadim

I'd like to have something really impressive to say here, but it's just not in the cards. Maybe later.
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