Innovation – should it be Technology or Business led?
Innovation is fast becoming second nature for businesses around the world. Whether practiced formally or pursued occasionally, companies are keenly investing efforts in developing creative thinking at the grass root level, with the foresight of delivering breakthrough results in the future.
Information technology is often closely associated with Innovation. So much so, that with every passing day, these domains are getting more and more joined at the hip. Does this mean that there was no Innovation before the advent of technology? Is a strategy, or a process or simply a unique business idea not innovative unless spearheaded by technology? Questions like these are easily answered by reflecting on our past, where innovations were created out of a need and not on the basis of an available technology. The crafting and usage of the wheel started a transportation revolution, way back in 3200 B.C. A shift from bio-fuels to coal and establishment of new age manufacturing processes were few of the game changing innovations which started the Industrial revolution in the 18th century.
Personally, I believe that innovation ideas are welcome from everywhere but the clear ownership of any innovation should rest with the business. There are considerable differences between the way business and technology teams approach innovation and the final outcome of the innovation is dependent on the approach. Let me explain in detail, using the banking industry as an example.
- The purpose of the innovation
Technology-Led: There is always the technology enthusiast, pursuing a given piece of technology which is already released and possibly even used in other industries. This enthusiast will try to determine an innovative use for the banking industry, but which might not be relevant to a critical business need.
Business-Led: Business will seek innovations for complex business problems, broadly associated to increasing the revenue, reducing cost, enhancing the customer experience or strengthening the compliance and controls. In such business led initiatives, there are often clear targets to be achieved which will help determine the success of the innovation.
- The sponsorship of the innovation
Technology-Led: Technology teams always seek a business sponsor. They aim to impress and get the funding. They work on prototypes which help in show-casing the possible use of technology and with solution in hand, they go around looking for a problem to fix.
Business-Led: Business teams have clarity on the need for the solution and perceived benefits resulting in an active sponsor for the innovation from the start. Budgets and support is almost guaranteed. They come in with a known problem, looking for the right solution.
- Managing the innovation
Technology-Led: For the technology team, there is a tremendous focus on developing a prototype, getting something to work for show-casing. They start often with a hazy big picture, caught in the phase 1 thinking. Many other aspects of the solution might be de-scoped to ensure something is delivered fast at a low cost as the end goal is show-casing to the business. Once the business likes it, a large project can be formalized for execution to fill all the gaps.
Business-Led: From a business perspective, heavy emphasis is placed on the quality of the solution, thereby welcoming reviews from all stakeholders for a broader challenge, inducing lots of improvement. An incomplete faulty solution will not serve the end purpose of solving the problem at hand and an end to end coverage is vital for the success. All aspects are kept in mind, especially the customer of the intended innovation.
- The stamina of the innovator
Technology-Led: A technology innovator can get demotivated due to lack of upfront support from business, uncertain budgets and a defined sponsor. A short-term burst of passion will subside with the constant challenge in strengthening the solution and the endless pursuit of increasing quality after the engineering process. This often results in rework upon rework due to constant reviews and feedback and the innovator’s stamina and energy get diluted over time.
Business-Led: Here, the innovator often accepts failure as a step forward, towards success. Iterations are seen to add value in improving the solution. Business gathers support from all stakeholders, the motivation increases as the launch time comes closer and energy multiplies as the excitement kicks-in.
To sum it up, though innovations in technology are the ones attracting the most fame, in reality it is the thought-through business objectives which truly deserve the praise. For instance, it took Amazon numerous business innovations to put together the unique retail model in place. Steve Jobs by this definition was one of the greatest business (not technology) innovators, creating improved business models to positively effect and change 6 prime industries of his time. Thus, let the innovation efforts be targeted towards the need and not the technology.
About the writer:
Zubair Ahmed is the Senior Vice President, Head of IT & Business Innovation at Emirates Islamic Bank. Previous to this role, Zubair spent nearly 2 decades in challenging leadership roles, at the heart of the Finance Technology industry. A Harvard Alumni, with 24+ years of IT & financial industry experience, he enjoys been customer facing, engaging businesses in strategic use of technology. Excels in enterprise transformation, has led and produced compelling results in creating business innovation at the grass-roots of the organization. Author of the book "Power To Kids" which serves as a guide in 'applying quality & management principles to parenting'. Actively involved with a number of non-profit causes across the region. As an ardent speaker / panelist and a life coach, Zubair is regularly featured in numerous conferences around the world.