Complementary Opposites A Paradigm Utilized in Managing IT Excellence and Innovation

Date:   Wednesday , September 01, 2010

Business is frequently centered on the problem of balancing multiple contradictory goals. For example, an aggressive growth strategy for a people centric business and simultaneously ensuring quality of hires are problems that are typically identified as complementary opposites. Such issues typically have seemingly contradictory drivers; however, creating a working balance between them while driving both goals is a skill that most business leaders develop.

As per Sun Tzu, the principle of complementary opposites says that seemingly conflicting forces are actually two necessary sides of the same system. While we have taken a more deterministic and reductionist view of systems, Plato was the first to recognize that these linear methods have natural limits. The only way to get beyond them is the ‘dialectic’ of seeing the deeper truth that resolves an apparent conflict. As the modern physicist Neils Bohr put it, “The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth…”
The balance between IT excellence and innovation is just such a paradigm. In order to appreciate this fact, let’s look at the drivers of both in isolation.

For any organization that focuses on IT excellence, the tools typically utilized are:

1. Enterprise Architecture as a planning and strategy discipline: IT departments now focus on designing Enterprise IT Architecture in a way that it aligns to the business strategy and not just immediate business needs, giving IT the strength to quickly adapt to dynamic business needs. It additionally has given the business confidence in IT to deliver and also increased the go-to-market time for businesses, giving them a competitive advantage.

2. Services Portfolio Management: Traditionally, IT is a service request fulfilment department where a list of requested services and changes would come in and the department spends time and energy in fulfilling those requests and then maintaining them. Through a services portfolio management framework, IT is able to deliver meticulous planning over a time period to deliver systems and services.

3. Governance Frameworks and Continuous Service Improvement: One cannot improve something which is not measured. In addition to service delivery, a considerable amount of effort has been put in adopting governance frameworks to improve IT efficiency and process compliance, for both IT processes and business processes. A constant flow of data means that IT is now able to measure its performance and also draw conclusions and predict performance better.

4. Best Practice Frameworks and Compliance: A drive to be compliant with both internal and external standards has facilitated an improvement in IT functions. Compliance drives governance and governance drives measurement. IT Departments in most organizations now measure their performance against the available good practices and frameworks such as ITIL. CoBIT, TOGAF, and so on, thus getting an insight into relevant holistic improvement opportunities.

5. Process Excellence: Process mapping within and across multiple systems is a key driver for ensuring that business is able to leverage the full potential of the deployed IT systems. As a result, business process re-engineering and process validation is a large part of any user acceptance procedures.

While efficiency and excellence are important factors, an organization would fail to achieve competitive business advantage if it does not innovate with a high degree of predictability.

Innovation should be focussed at identification of key business strategy points, and managing the innovation engine in a way that it creates enough interest and sustainable value to facilitate reaching closer to the organizations business goals. A study by AT Kearney Consultants says, “Of the companies that achieved a greater than 10 percent annual sales growth, nearly 90 percent reported benefiting from IT innovation.” Below are a few skills typically leveraged to drive goals in any innovation factory. These skills are needed irrespective of the 3 ‘types’ of innovation: incremental innovation - small improvements in existing operations, architectural innovation - technology or process changes to fundamentally change a component or element of business, and discontinuous innovation - radical advances that may significantly alter the basis for competition in an industry.

1. Tangential Thinking: Innovation is intertwined with creativity and the two are often used with only hazy distinctions. Both are often merely processes through which knowledge is developed and transformed into business value (Gurteen, 1998). A useful definition describes creativity as the generation and emergence of new ideas. It is thinking outside the box, coming up with novel ideas through divergent, tangential thinking. Conversely, innovation is turning ideas into products, services, and processes (Couger, 1995). Innovation involves refining the ideas begot from creativity and then transforming them into useful solutions. Innovation requires convergent thought in applying new concepts to certain problems and situations. Practically, the term innovation represents creativity in action.

2. Adaptability or Flexibility: Think about the unthinkable. The recent recession wiped out thousands of sales-driven companies, those that spent every day pushing a product. When the economy took a dive, they were out of business. They refused to think about the unthinkable - who will be our customers if the economy changes or the competition heats up? How will new technology affect us? Be ready to change directions rapidly.

3. Collaboration: Collaboration has been and continues to be an important source of innovation. Innovations are increasingly brought to the market by networks of firms, selected according to their comparative advantages. The hidden value of these relationships can be leveraged to transcend incremental innovation.

4. Connecting dots: Innovation in technology based services isn’t necessarily the creation of a new product or service but can also be developed by integrating multiple existing technologies to create a uniquely differentiated service. The ability to ‘connect dots’ across multiple discussions to create a holistic solution is a fundamental skill set needed for an innovative team.

In the context of this discussion, IT excellence necessitates a hawk like focus on business requirements, pre-empting them, and delivering to reach and exceed business goals. The focus is on the needs of the business teams - the internal customer. Innovation, on the other hand, needs a focus on the end-customer and drivers in the market place. It necessitates the ability to understand and react to the changing market forces and translate them into a service offering that can be delivered to the business as a competitive business advantage - effectively transforming your IT organization into a business driver.
The author is Chief Architect & Head – IT Strategy, MTS India