03 Apr Visions: Benson touts embedded innovation
Editor’s note: Laurie Benson, CEO of Inacom Information Systems, is one of the drivers behind Wisconsin’s Make Mine A Million awards program, scheduled for May 21 in Madison. The program seeks to provide financial, mentoring, and other resources to women entrepreneurs who want to take their businesses to the $1 million level, including technology entrepreneurs.
In this Visions interview with WTN, the woman behind Inacom, a $70 million information technology consulting firm, also talked about the business value she expects from technologists, and her company’s embedded approach to fostering innovation. Excerpts are as follows:
WTN: How many technology-related entrepreneurs have applied for the Wisconsin Make Mine A Million event?
Benson: I can tell you that I’ve spoken with probably around a dozen, myself, but I don’t have access to the actual list of applicants. That’s confidential, but there is definitely significant interest from the technology sector.
WTN: The goal of the Wisconsin program was to have more women, including those in the technology realm, bring their company’s annual revenue to $1 million. Why is this goal an important thing to accomplish?
Benson: I’ll try to put that in perspective. The overall mission of the national Make Mine A Million is to get a million women-owned businesses to $1 million in revenue by 2010. Wisconsin’s opportunity, by being the first state to run the competition, is to create a grassroots effort for sustainable growth by connecting women business owners with existing programs, resources, and best practices that already exist in our state. So that’s very important.
To get specific about the numbers impact in Wisconsin, there are 158,000 women-owned businesses in Wisconsin, and only 4,000 have revenues of $1 million or more. So we need to get that number to 17,000 by 2010. It’s important to everyone because this is going to create over 90,000 jobs, and add $13 billion to economic activity in our state when we achieve that.
WTN: We often ask CIOs about what keeps them up at night regarding information technology. As a CEO, what keeps you up regarding IT?
Benson: Nothing. I say that in jest because I’m not really a worrier. As a CEO, I focus both on strategic opportunities and challenges, and I see IT as a significant enabler. What would keep someone up at night would be on the security side of the equation, so reliability and security are certainly risks. But we’ve got plans in place to address these for ourselves and our customers, so it’s important but it doesn’t keep me up.
My biggest concern is that we have to make sure that we have creative and innovative solutions that are going to solve our customers’ problems through IT. I think one of the greatest opportunities that exist right now in IT is our ability to innovate how we work and live based on information available to us through technology. Creativity and innovation will be the key differentiators as we all work together to create the best possible future in ways that haven’t even been leveraged yet. I want us to be at the forefront of those efforts.
WNT: Are you talking about product innovation?
Benson: I would not say product. It involves product, but implementations of product that will yield information that allows new and innovative discoveries with the power of that information. It’s not product-based, it’s solution-based.
WTN: How has your company created a culture of innovation for your 100-plus employees?
Benson: That is a great question. I’d love it if you would ask them that, but for efficiency purposes, I’ll do my best. First of all, you have to have them involved. It really starts in the strategic-planning process. We get input from our customers, from our employees, and our board, and we also go to the thought leaders in our industry. We look at the emerging trends as well as the current technology that’s already there that we can leverage, and we have meetings and discussions around this.
One of our most recent offerings has come exactly from this process. It’s around a managed service offering for small and medium-sized businesses, where we can manage their IT infrastructure for them. This all came from that type of process. We know that nationally there are managed services and that’s a trend, but everybody doesn’t need to tie into a data center.
So we put this all together. Our people did that. It’s being very well received, and clients are signing on to that. So that’s one example that I would say is part of the innovative culture.
The most important component of an innovative culture is to allow failures because people have to be involved. That’s fundamental. The employees have to be involved and the customers have to be involved. But if you’re not willing to try things, you’re not going to succeed with innovation.
WTN: Do you allow a certain amount of time or budget for employee-driven innovation projects?
Benson: It’s built into their job descriptions. It isn’t a separate category. It’s integral to what they do. It would be very difficult to create a culture that doesn’t allow for innovation, and really have everything aligned with your strategy and your values. It’s easy to create a culture for innovation if you believe in it. It’s hard to imagine the alternative.
WTN: What do you expect of your CIO and technologists in terms of delivering business value?
Benson: We do not have a specific CIO position. At our business, that role, the objectives of a CIO, would be jointly shared by our president and our vice president of professional services. And I think that makes a statement that technology is so important – having it as part of the president’s role. So my expectation would be that we have seamless integration of our varied databases, so we can analyze key data and trends and technology offerings for our clients that align with corporate strategies and customer expectations. That’s my number one expectation.
I would say I also expect that the technology we use will represent the most current technology so that our people have the tools to do their jobs accurately and efficiently and easily. That’s an important statement because as we were growing, it was very hard to allocate dollars to the technology tools.
Everyone at our company just got a new laptop in the last three months, and they also got smart phones that they can use to connect offsite, so our engineers can click on their phone and report their time. We’ve really tried to make it easier for them. I’m more and more convinced that this is important.
WNT: Do you expect the people serving in those capacities to come to you with solutions, rather than wait for direction?
Benson: Our senior management team is very in tune with, for example, the implementation of the smart phones, laptops, and our internal databases. They really come to me with a lot of those solutions, but the day-to-day employees who are involved in testing everything, especially with the smart phones, actually made a different decision based on their feedback. I don’t drive that from the top down. I provide the foundation with our strategy in conjunction with our president.
The best measure of value for me, both internal and external, is when customers choose to do business with us. That is absolutely the highest expectation I have of the CIO role in delivering business value – our customers choosing to do business with us and our employees staying with us.