How to Innovate When the Budget's Tight

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Print this article Print


Re-Imagining Linux Platforms to Meet the Needs of Cloud Service Providers

Baseline's seven steps to re-creating a technology department can help you streamline your internal operations and work with clients to help streamline theirs.

PDF DownloadInnovation isn't the province of just world economic leaders, bomb designers and management gurus. At dynamic companies in competitive industries, innovation happens all the time—and the ideas often originate outside the executive suite. It was, after all, the ideas of a shop-floor supervisor that led to Toyota's production system becoming the envy of the car industry.

"Occasionally innovation is exponential but usually it's incremental," says Kenneth Kraemer, a professor of information systems at the University of California-Irvine and director of the Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations, a think tank.

Indeed, for internal technology staffs, "think small" may be the mantra for 2002. The thinking still has to serve broader corporate goals, but in an era of tight technology budgets it should aim at making the most of resources already deployed. "It's no longer about coming up with new ideas—it's about refining existing processes," says Craig Williams, senior manager of Internet/extranet networks at Cisco.

Here are the places where low-cost technology innovation can happen.

Within the company: Information technology is a service function; the IT staff exist to make everyone else's life easier. Nine months ago, Cisco formed an internal consulting group it calls Information Technology Enterprise Account Management. The ITEAM supports application development at Cisco—a function where the problems were sometimes coming to the attention of Cisco chief executive John Chambers. "Senior executives no longer have to react to little firestorms," says Richard Cassidy, director of information systems at Cisco. "Everyone is happy with it."

Within the department: The downsizing of corporate technology staffs—and the increased workload for those who survive—have made morale an issue. Hold weekly brainstorming sessions (supplemented by the occasional dinner; see box, below) about how better to service internal customers. The staff will appreciate your soliciting their input.

Outside the company: Technology workers often have no contact with end customers. Encourage your staff to participate in sales calls or go through the experience firsthand of buying your company's products. Your most promising workers are likely already taking this step on their own; make it a requirement for every staffer.

To Do List: Ready Set Renovate!

Like most rallying cries, the ones used in corporate boardrooms—"innovate," "change organizational behavior," "empower"—don't offer much in the way of practical advice. Hearing them doesn't tell you what you can do in the next year, let alone the next month, to become a better technology manager. To fill that gap, Baseline offers its top seven steps for starting you on your own technology renovation project.

1. SUBSCRIBE to the top trade journals that cover your field—and we don't mean the technology field; we mean the industry in which you work. You'll be able to anticipate trends instead of reacting to them.

Online resource: A trade publication exists for almost every industry, from turbine engines to mortuary management. Ask your company's business executives what they're reading, or browse through the publisher Web sites below. If you are still at a loss, try searching for your industry plus "trade publication" at Google www.google.com.

Penton Media
Economic Development/Finance
Information Technology
Mechanical Systems/Construction
Natural Products
Streaming Media/Digital Media
Supply Chain

Reed Elsevier
Science & medical

Primedia publishes nearly 90 trade publications on:
Entertainment Technology
Financial Services
Government & Public Services
Health Services
Meetings & Events Planning
Mobile Communications
Printing & Converting
Real Estate
RF (Radio Frequency)
Textiles & Apparel
Waste & Environment

Through subsidiaries, Primedia also covers government and media markets.

2. READ a book on a successful—or failed—manager. The stories of a Jack Welch or a Bill Clinton are not lessons for the business staff only; if you want the technology department to participate in strategy, learn how strategy gets pulled together.

Jack: Straight from the Gut, by Jack Welch and John A. Byrne
General Electric CEO Jack Welch teamed up with BusinessWeek journalist John Byrne to recount Welch's career and how he transformed GE into one of the most successful companies of the past century.

The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell, by Oren Harari
A breakdown of the leadership skills and philosophies of this widely respected political figure.

Chainsaw: The Notorious Career of Al Dunlap in the Era of Profit-At-Any-Price, by John A. Byrne
Dunlap is one of the many managers whose penchant for power got him in trouble. From Amazon.com: "Wall Street loved Dunlap at Scott Paper, where he laid off thousands, but then hated him at Sunbeam, where he himself was finally fired. Chainsaw dramatically documents the rise and fall of Dunlap, the havoc he wreaked on companies and people's lives, and how he came to power in the first place."

3. COMMUNICATE the company business plan or mission statement. Explain how the daily tasks each person performs tie directly to the goals of the company. It's a remedy for the isolation often felt by employees in support organizations.

Online resource: The Balanced Scorecard is a framework developed in the early 1990s that associates high-level strategy with specific metrics. See Baseline's October issue for an explanation of this management tool; Balanced Scorecard Collaborative, a consulting group that helps companies learn about and use the framework.

4. CONNECT with customers by piggybacking on sales calls or picking the brains of customer service managers. The issues that customers raise are often ones that eventually find their way to your in-box.

Online resource: The most helpful customer information will come from your company's own sales and customer service staff. To familiarize yourself with the issues that concern them most, visit META Group's 's customer relationship management community page.

5. REORGANIZE your department around dedicated technology "account managers." This kind of structure gives business units a feeling that their issues are a priority, and helps ease tensions.

Online resource: Consulting and training company InterProm USA's helpful article, "The End-to-End IT Service Organization," offers suggestions for organizing the technology department into service teams. iCanSP , a division of Computer Associates, helps technology departments become service-centric organizations.

6. WINE AND DINE your staff—preferably after hours. Strange, but true: People talk more easily over dinner than lunch. Be sure to focus on junior employees, who are usually the best source of ideas for making processes work better.

Online resource: Plan ahead by choosing a place in which your staff will feel comfortable Citysearch.com, comfortable Zagat.com, and Menus.com are good places to start). When you make reservations, inquire about the noise level: No one likes having to yell to be heard. And although it's a good idea to have a list of topics to cover, don't try to run a formal meeting—your relaxed attitude will put your staff at ease.

7. STOP FILING! Out of sight is out of mind for even the most organized manager. You've got your ROI calculations, top-projects lists and risk assessments all written out—decorate your walls or your desktop with them as a reminder of your goals and priorities.

Online resource: Start with the corporate office-supply catalog for ways to post documents, such as the ever-popular display rail.

Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.

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