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Updated: March 4, 2010 13:34 IST

IT is a critical innovation lever

D Murali
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Sukumar Rajagopal
Sukumar Rajagopal

Innovation is one of those words suffering from the lack of a clear definition, and that makes it a much-abused and overused word, concedes Sukumar Rajagopal, Senior Vice President and Head of Innovation, Cognizant (www.cognizant.com). The way an organisation defines innovation depends on its philosophy and where it is on the innovation maturity curve, he adds, during a recent interaction with Business Line in Nageswara Rao park.

Cognizant follows the distributed innovation model, where everyone is expected to participate in the innovation process, informs Sukumar. “Owing to that approach, we define innovation, a bit broadly, as something that produces a benefit for our customers or the company or the employee.”

It is still early morning, and almost all the pathways in the park are teeming with the fitness-conscious. Even as they jog and walk, do yoga and practise pranayama, Sukumar and I are busy chatting in the Chess Square.

He is a blogger who takes interest in technology, anthropology, and teamwork, and so there is no dearth of topics to discuss: From knowledge management to canteen logic, from quadrant mapping of ideas to bambino’s curse in baseball, and from influencing conversations to examples of head-fake. And our conversation moves on to email…

Excerpts from the interview.

Are there areas where innovation can make a difference to IT solutions?

This is an interesting question. We now live in a more globalised world. Overnight, someone else can make and deliver what an organisation does much cheaper and faster and make them obsolete. We see IT (information technology) as a critical innovation lever in this globalised, connected world.

Over the past few decades, IT has come a long way from being just an enabler to IT as a differentiator, and to IT as a business.

To be successful in today’s environment, organisations have to focus their innovation efforts along three major categories:

1. Improving the efficiency/ effectiveness of business processes using IT.

2. Reengineering their business processes by using IT.

3. Finding/ building breakthrough ideas or new business models using IT.

Many innovation programs are focused on the third category, and the innovation work is restricted to a few people in the organisation – typically the R&D (research and development) group (the centralised model).

By contrast, it is in the first two categories that innovation opportunities abound. For the innovation programme to be effective in tackling the first two categories, the distributed model works better – where a large percentage of the employee population is engaged in innovation.

Therefore, for an innovation program to be effective across all the three categories, there needs to be a careful blend of both centralised and distributed models of innovation.

Is it not tough to have metrics for innovation? How do you get around that problem?

Yes, measuring innovation is not easy. Fortunately, measurement is not a complete “Black Box” either. There is enough research in this area, such as the Global Innovation Index that can be used for measuring innovation. Also, organisations look at revenues from new products/ services etc. as an outcome of innovation efforts.

People are a key ingredient in the innovation process. Hence, we have to take the cultural aspect and the time horizon as two base points when we start measuring innovation.

In the initial stages of the innovation journey, measuring things like the quantity of ideas, number of people contributing to ideas etc. would work better. As the programme makes progress, we could start measuring the quality of ideas (in terms of $ impact), the velocity from ideas to implementation and so forth.

How far can someone be taught or trained to be innovative?

When I say, creativity and innovation can be taught, I am sure many eyebrows will rise. There are people who strongly believe that creativity cannot be taught.

In my opinion, this is a myth. Even if we give the benefit of doubt to the naysayers, the number of people that can never be creative is going to be miniscule.

It has been sufficiently proven by NASA’s research, that children are more creative than adults by a significant margin. This means that our education systems and our corporate systems make adults less creative. If that is not enough evidence, birds and animals have been shown to display creativity.

One of the ways to teach innovation is to systematise innovation. There are several techniques that are widely used, such as:

• “Lateral Thinking” by Edward de Bono.

• SCAMPER by Michael Michalko.

• TRIZ - by Genrich Altshuller.

In fact, many organisations have developed their own innovation processes and one example that stands out is IDEO’s Innovation Process.

The real secret-sauce is in creating an environment that encourages ideas, however trivial, without any judgment. This is difficult to accomplish because, whenever idea generation happens, there are always a few people in the room who are ready to criticise it, thereby killing off the spirit of innovation even before it starts.

What are the barriers to innovation?

My team has engaged hundreds of people across the organisation to try to understand the key barriers to innovation. It is interesting how we land up with a similar set of barriers, every time we run this session. Some of the key barriers we have heard are:

• Lack of understanding of the fact that everyone is innovative and that innovation is not just for the “Einsteins.”

• Lack of time to pursue innovation.

• Fear of failure.

• Fear of criticism of ideas.

• Focused on operations and not challenging status quo.

• Lack of motivation.

• Lack of process for innovation to manage ideas.

• “Not invented here syndrome” – Lack of awareness about adopting something that worked within the organisation as a form of innovation.

In what ways can enterprises foster an innovative culture?

We have already covered some key elements of an innovative culture, when discussing the barriers to innovation, measuring innovation, models of innovation etc. If we dig deeper into innovation, there are four major building blocks.

The first among them is to prepare the organisation to handle change effectively. There are several best practices in this area such as rotating people, having flatter hierarchies, preventing silo-isation, better knowledge management, encouraging reuse.

The second building block is stimulating creativity. (We have already discussed this aspect of teaching creativity.)

Once we enable employees to generate ideas and implement them, we need to get them to become more outcome-oriented. This is the third building block. Chasing ambitious outcomes is a great way to galvanise the innovation culture.

The fourth one is for employees to become self-starters – that is being able to work with minimal supervision.

An organisation that has implemented all the four building blocks effectively and has a proper metrics-based governance model for innovation could be deemed to possess an advanced innovation culture.

Other points of interest.

India is a very diverse and multicultural country. We are also a culture that lives through constraints, a perfect trigger for innovation. No wonder ‘jugaad’ is the talk of management gurus around the world.

We have come a long way in providing people, skills, infrastructure to be an integral part of IT solutions for our customers around the world.

If the success stories of reverse-innovation and customers’ demand to innovate for them are any indicators, the time is ripe for the next logical step, to become the key provider of research and innovation to the world.

Both the tech giants have now decided to drop the patent cases in all other countries except U.S. Photo: AP

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