Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Where does innovation come from (clue – it’s not IT)?

Somewhere in my previous post I stated that in the online economy innovation comes from the bottom not the top, something that I thought at the time was fairly uncontroversial.

Last week I attended an IT seminar, and two things struck me. First, I really don't work in IT - although I don't know what the alternative is; does the VP product development at Google put "IT Consultant" on their passport? Probably not, but what else is there? Anything else seems a little pretentious.

Second, my comment about innovation was quite controversial. The assembled crowd (mostly CIOs / IT Directors) nodded in agreement when the panel suggested that innovation was a luxury in the current climate, and that all that really mattered today was business value as measured by cost reductions and efficiency gains.

But if your business is technology, how can you not innovate? I was astounded at the assumption that innovation was something could be turned off. I may be very fortunate in my current job but my role is essentially controlling the unstoppable flood of innovation from our development team, and directing it towards some appropriate business objective. Turning it off would be unthinkable, if even possible without losing the team itself.

Someone at the seminar gleefully announced that the fabled Google 20% time was all but gone now, and even the mighty search giant had succumbed to market forces. Well, possibly, according to the HR team, but I'll bet a lot of money that the innovation continues unabated, 20% time or not. Google's scheme was more about encouraging what goes on anyway, with or without formal recognition.

The Internet (capital 'I') has matured to the point where it now represents an industry sector in its own right. On the Internet innovation is endemic, and comes from the youngest, keenest, coolest people in the room and not the oldies in the comfortable chairs. And it's a lot more fun than IT.

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