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Technology as the engine of business innovation

Forget about asking whether technology drives business or business drives technology. Stop worrying about whether or not technology is strategic. Silence all the rattling about how superior this technology is to that technology. In technology, as with love, there are certain questions that if you have to ask, you probably already know and don’t like the answer.

A more satisfying line of inquiry is how much of your technological horsepower is actually being used to turn the wheels of innovation. Car nuts know you get two different measures of horsepower depending on whether you measure at the engine or at the wheels. Cars have been around a long time and the amount of energy sapped by the drive-train between the engine and the wheels is well established and controlled. The same cannot be said for technology and innovation.

Where’s all that power going?

There are lots of different ways you can loose some of technology’s power to drive innovation, and, as with cars, some loss is inevitable. I look at a few of the likely candidates in this article, but your organization is unique, and the ways it is efficient and inefficient in applying technology have unique elements as well. I can’t predict the answers you’ll find, but I’m confident the question is a good one.

Putting the brakes on hype
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Just like automatic braking systems improve traction by judiciously applying brakes, you can improve your technology traction by being careful about the hype. Perceived power losses can be just as disappointing as actual power losses. If the new accounting system is just automating old accounting procedures, don’t expect a business revolution. You’d think the bursted? bubble coupled with the current vogue for IT-business cases would have solved this problem. Unfortunately, I see a lot of organizations that still think of technology in terms of magic. It used to be that technology was the magic that would change the organization, ready or not. Now it seems that many organizations are looking for magic to change their technology and IT processes, ready or not. Neither one works. If you can’t explain the connections between your technology, your organization and your innovation, the amount of horsepower within the technology is probably a moot point.

Engineering the technology before engineering the organization

My Uncle Leon was a car dealer and a mechanic. Long before “Monster Garage,” his kids delighted in doing weird things to cars. They had this idea that it would be really cool (this was the ’60s) to put a really big engine in a really little car. The combination I remember was a big block Detroit engine in a VW bug. After removing the back seat and a number of other automotive hacks, the thing actually ran. Only problem was that the torque at full throttle from a dead stop would simply flip the car on its side. It was entertaining to watch; not too useful for transportation.

Does your organization want more power from its technology than it’s ready to handle? One old saw runs “Innovate, then automate” and that’s only part of the equation. You also have to consider things like the level of tech savvy in your non-IT staff, the quality of relationships between your IT staff and the people they work with and the sophistication of your organization’s information behaviors. Weakness in any of these areas will greatly diminish the usefulness of any technological source of power. Knowing and improving your organizational climate for technology is as important as any improvement in technology.

Stepping on the gas

Is it possible to innovate without technology? Yeah, probably. Is it possible to rapidly deploy and sustain innovation without technology? Maybe not. Either way, just like you probably won’t buy a car without an engine, you probably won’t make real business changes without any technology. And by the same token, just like a car is much more than an engine, innovation is going to require much more than just great technology. What’s behind all this chattering about alignment and strategy is the need for good working relationships if you want to get the most out of your IT engine. Putting your organization on the road to real change will require close collaboration among all its leaders, whether they specialize in technology or not.

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Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and project management consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via the email at blglick@charter.net or via telephone at 608/345-3958.


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The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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