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What’s strangling technological innovation?

Major roadblocks are stifling IT innovation at a time when technological innovation is needed most.

IT innovation begins with ideas that drive change and create value for the business. Innovation may spark technological changes, such as acquiring a powerful new server. It may also motivate business process changes that streamline the way groups interact, allowing IT personnel to deliver services more effectively. Unfortunately, technological innovation is much easier on paper than it is in real life. Enormous pressures can inhibit IT innovation, in turn, jeopardizing the company’s ability to compete–and even survive. Before you start the next IT initiative, take a moment and consider some of the factors that might block your path, and ways to work around them.

Cumbersome business processes cripple agility
Some of the biggest problems that an organization faces are not with technology, but with process. For example, technologies like virtualization allow new servers to be provisioned without purchasing any new server hardware. But a traditional paper-based justification process can take weeks to clear before an administrator is allowed to provision the virtual server--a process that only takes a few minutes. Old ways of doing business can sap the agility and flexibility that new technologies offer.

Working to identify these process roadblocks and refining the business processes to overcome them will provide a tremendous benefit for future IT innovation efforts. Make no mistake; it’s hard to overcome the inertia of deeply entrenched processes and staff mired in the habit of those processes. Still, leaders willing to take the risk can be rewarded with a significant boost in IT agility.

Lean staffing cannot easily innovate
IT staffing has been on a downward trend for years, but staffing has suffered significantly in recent years with the increase in economic instability. The skeleton IT staff that remains often struggles with day-to-day “firefighting” tasks, like troubleshooting, configuration, provisioning and so on. Unfortunately, this leaves very little time available for the kind of strategic, long-term vision needed for IT innovation. In addition, the remaining IT staff frequently lacks the breadth of skills–and advanced skill sets–to consider new IT technologies and map them to business needs. And ultimately, a staff in this situation has very little motivation to make improvements.

Management needs to encourage technological innovation from IT and create time for IT to produce those innovations. For example, outsourcing some of the more mundane daily tasks to a local value-added reseller (even on a temporary basis) can take some of the pressure off IT to pursue more innovative projects. When the in-house skill sets are lacking, some organizations opt to bring in outside talent to tackle new projects instead, and then transfer that knowledge base to the in-house IT staff.

Budget constraints are harsh on soft projects
When money is tight, the time-consuming and capital-intensive efforts often associated with IT projects require a solid justification and a clear return on investment (ROI) before funding is budgeted. This isn’t usually a problem with hardware-focused projects, such as new servers, where the hardware acquisition and deployment cost can be weighed against energy savings and workload capabilities. The ROI is much murkier with “soft projects” like process changes, backup and recovery deployments, and other less tangible efforts. Without a carefully documented return to expect, many organizations are simply reluctant to make the investment in some IT projects, possibly to their detriment.

The best approach here is for IT to make the strongest logical assessment of the business benefits. For example, showing management that the cost of the project is less than the cost of avoiding the project, or the project offers other measureable business benefits (e.g., lower storage use and a corresponding reduction in storage capacity expenditures) might be enough to shake some funding loose. Focusing on easier, shorter-term successes can build management confidence in IT and make it easier to gain support for larger efforts into the future.

Risk aversion inhibits technological innovation
Risk aversion is not just a matter of corporate culture, where executives are “afraid” of IT change. The issue is often more complicated than that. Many organizations are burdened with the support of legacy systems for which no direct replacement currently exists. For example, imagine that a business relies on an internally developed order entry system that depends on particular hardware or operating system versions. Upgrading the system, or any projects that affect that system, might be denied due to unacceptable risk (in spite of that strategy’s apparent short-sightedness). As another example, other organizations might rely on extremely high uptime requirements where the risk of downtime is unacceptable.

The goal here may be to argue for the investment in a test and development resource where new technologies can be tested, refined and even operated in parallel with the production environment until executives are satisfied with the level of risk commensurate with the demonstrated business benefits. Getting that internally developed order entry system to run reliably as a virtual machine in the test and development environment for six months may satisfy management while providing a superior workload migration and protection strategy.

Outside relationships can complicate technological innovation
Businesses today are increasingly transparent, allowing vendors, clients and other users to access and interact with business data. As the line blurs between businesses and their outside relationships, those third parties also presume an increasing amount of influence over your business. Just imagine how difficult it would be to place orders without a vendor’s Web portal. And if that Web portal is inadequate or difficult to use, there is an expectation that the portal would be updated or changed to function better. This can place more pressure on an IT staff that is already overburdened and underfunded, as they try to fill in the gaps in service.

The good news here is that outside users can be a catalyst for IT innovation, helping you to identify areas that are important to them and improve their ability to do business with you. The prospect of lost sales or dissatisfied customers can be a powerful justification for new IT projects. For example, if order processing time is just too long, it might prompt a review of network performance or back-end server behavior. Soliciting input from third parties through things like satisfaction surveys can be a good way to engage outside users.

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