Innovation in IT, a consulting point of view

Innovation, according to Wikipedia, is often viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. Such innovation takes place through the provision of more efficient products, processes, services, technologies, or business models that are made available to markets, governments and society.

So, why should we innovate? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

Not innovating will leave you outpaced very rapidly by your regular competition and by a competition you’ve never thought of. You’ll be out of business in almost the blink of an eye. Do you remember Digital, Sun Microsystems, Compaq in the IT sector? What about PanAm, Sabena in the airline industry? When did you see Borders, Sears, Tower Records, BlockBuster in the retail sector? One could definitely say that these big brands omitted to innovate. If you don’t adapt to new market conditions, listen to your customers, understand the market inner workings and threats, and make your company evolve continuously, you’re doomed to disappear.

OK, let’s innovate then… and you’ll almost automatically hear people say; “Let’s put in a new system, let’s modernize,…”. Easier said than done.

Innovating in one area of your business might not be enough. Actually, it will not suffice for sure. It might even do more harm than good. By focusing on one part or department of your business, without considering the other departments, you will skew your entire operation. You’ll create an unbalanced structure that will weaken your total operational model.

Imagine improving your entire sales process with a new marketing campaign, implementing a brand-new CRM system, a user-friendly and efficient e-commerce platform. That would be a good innovation, right? You could absolutely boost your sales with that, but at the same time you forgot to address your production capacities and the additional stress put on your operational processes. You end up with frustrated and dissatisfied customers, stressed-out employees, and ultimately loss of business and a negative impact on your brand image.

I see many enterprises, medium and large, literally “throwing” themselves into innovation projects. “Digital Transformation” are the magical buzzwords everybody like to use now because they are the hot topic of the day.

They all start with assigning a DTO, a Digital Transformation Officer, and off they go. This whole digital transformation hype started with the rise of the “Cloud”. Not only the gentle push of the different vendors encouraging you to embrace their cloud, but also the new capabilities of the cloud, the speed at which you can deploy and take advantage of the various cloud components and its sheer endless computing power have all accelerated the need for digital transformation.
But digital transformation is way more than leveraging that humongous IT power you now have access to through the cloud.

In my opinion, digital transformation is an ongoing innovation process, touching all facets of your company. It is the marriage of ongoing business improvements based on the market dynamics with the availability of powerful new IT capabilities.

The overall dynamic should be to continuously assess, analyze your market for new threats, new opportunities, new production capabilities, etc., while you have the same research on the go for the supporting IT tools. Selection of the right tools is crucial, not only from a capability standpoint, but also from a monetary perspective. Yes, there are affordable tools out there to run your business strategy. And I’m not necessarily talking about Open Source. Even a small start-up now has access to quasi-unlimited computing power without having to invest millions in a large data center, as major enterprises do. By itself, this represents a threat to “established” enterprises.

Let us assume you are proficient in your market intelligence. That is, you know your market, you understand the market dynamics based on the economic factors, you have the right marketing input as to client behaviour and anticipated buying patterns. You not only want to optimize what you have, you also wish to add new means to address your business strategy. Digital transformation should not be about “rip and replace”, but rather adapt and improve continuously by leveraging the new capabilities we now find in the technology sector.

I see a lot of larger enterprises undertaking a digital transformation. Which one of them is doing it properly? Digital transformation is the buzz word used by everyone nowadays if you want to be “in”. Read the annual report of those large enterprises and you’ll see they have even set a budget aside for digital transformation. More and more you hear from within that the majority of these digital transformations are a failure because they don’t deliver on what was expected and that they cost way too much money. And funny enough, the reason behind this is that the main focus of these projects was put on revamping or modernizing existing IT building blocks! They have tried to follow the market and have listened too carefully to the advice of “commercial” IT vendors. They migrated or ported big chunks of their IT portfolio to the cloud and augmented it with all the bells and whistles the new Cloud platforms allowed for. Mail migration, mobility, BI, collaboration where the main workloads defined as their digital transformation project. On its own, nothing wrong with that, as improving or lowering operational costs is a good thing to do. But they did not touch the core of their business model. And this is what’s at risk in our new economic era. By doing so, they undertook a modernization project of an existing operational component, not an innovation project.

Innovation must consider all areas of your enterprise at the same time, not only because they are intertwined, but also because you have to maintain a harmonious whole. Remember, business and IT need to go hand in hand. So, see it as a wheel, an ever-turning wheel, where you put in new spokes as need be without never preventing the wheel from spinning.

To help you with that permanent focus on both the business/market intelligence and the new IT tooling, many IT vendors will try to convince you they can provide you with both. They’ve hired CIOs or CFOs from the automotive industry, from aerospace, or from manufacturing, they say… So they should be able to help you, right? Many large business consultancy firms will do the same and tell you they can help you with IT as well. Shouldn’t it be great? I don’t think so!
By definition, IT vendors will focus on maximizing the technology so that in the end you use as much technology as possible. That’s their business interest and, fair enough, it’s their job to do so. Business consultancy will focus on the business process in general and will consider less the technological capabilities that could serve as accelerators to implement that business strategy. So, ideally you need both at the table. I don’t mean you need external consultants all the time, just to supplement what you lack or might have overseen. My point is that you need to have the right input in both areas and jointly, as one goes hand in hand with the other.

For instance, take your legacy applications that have run in your company for so many years. They are the backbone of your enterprise. In order to adapt to the changing market, you maintained them, added code to them, integrated new systems to them, and before you knew it, you created a “Frankenstein”. Sorry, I don’t want to call your baby ugly, but in all honesty…

So now is the time to give a rebirth to your Frankenstein. From a technical perspective, not much of a problem: you take the old code, use one of the existing code converters, and in a minimum of time you have your app running in the Cloud in a modern and maintainable language. I know, I’m jumping to gun, but for the sake of argument, please indulge me.

This sole workload is a good example of what you should be considering. Indeed, by modernizing this legacy application, you not only fixed the supportability of your app, you allowed for new business capabilities. You can take advantage of this app modernization to add new or better integrations, statistics leading into BI, mobility, etc. Needless to say, this has to be planned with the other departments as it will affect production, marketing, sales and HR, to name a few. Orchestrating all of that is digital transformation, or at least one iteration thereof.

From an IT perspective, you can take advantage of the numerous new capabilities’ IT vendors offer you. Often in a cloud model, you can add functionality by using a “service” instead of buying and implementing a software. You can also benefit from attractive pricing for these “services” and use, even pay for, as you consume. Vendors offer a richness of applications you can use. But in order to consume the different applications and to do so in a safe environment, one needs still to have the basic plumbing in place. I know, infrastructure is dull, nobody sees it, nobody is aware it even exists until something goes wrong and everything comes to a grinding halt.

A solid infrastructure will allow you to reek most, if not all, benefits of the new competitive advantages the cloud offers you. It will be the warrant of a secure access to all your assets, while at the same time protecting your brand image. Your local infrastructure will have the cloud as an extension. You need to make sure your infrastructure is secure and standardized so it can integrate with the cloud and its intrinsic security.
Yes, you have to dive deep into the inner workings of your server software or your directory software to make sure they run properly in accordance with the vendor’s benchmarks and standards. It’s dull work, but a necessity often overlooked by those who should take charge over it. One might say, “understandably”. Because human consultants prefer to work on more visible projects such as developing cool systems, clients have trouble finding infrastructure consultants to do the “dull” work.

This is where we see virtual consultants coming in. Don’t mistake a virtual consultant for a remote consultant. A virtual consultant is an automated intelligent service.

Imagine having such a virtual consultant assessing your servers and producing a report, like an X-ray of your environment, so you can see the overall health of your infrastructure. Up to you to execute the proposed remediation plan to better your environment in accordance with the manufacturer’s standards and benchmarks, or best practices.

This assessment would typically take weeks of work for a human consultant, while the virtual consultant delivers within hours, not to say minutes. I don’t need to explain further, as you can appreciate for sure the fast ROI and benefits.

When the cloud arrived in our world took some time to be accepted. But it has now become generally accepted, even by public sector accounts. We predict a similar path for virtual consultants.