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Innovation requires far more than just investment in tech

'Businesses must embrace disruptive technologies' is a headline we all have some familiarity with by now. Playing to the enduring misconception that the latest breakthroughs will equip businesses with everything they need to stay relevant and competitive, these headlines overlook the home truth that innovation is about far more than just gadgets or machines.

Established companies often panic when faced by competition from smaller organisations that are utilising disruptive technology such as connected devices (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, or containerisation. This fear is seated in the perception that these smaller organisations have the ability to react faster to customer needs and industry changes.

However, rather than looking externally for something to swoop in and effect transformation, smart leaders should focus on how they can become better placed internally as an organisation to realise change. Flattening hierarchies, breaking down silos, and building cross-functional teams are the principal ingredients for these decision makers.

For companies looking to innovate without simply buying into technology hype, here are three considerations to bear in mind when considering the next ‘IoT’ or ‘AI’ product your business needs.

Look at the numbers

Any executive chasing after the latest solutions ignores the fact we live in an age that’s awash with disruptive technology. If the organisation continues to chase the new buzzword on the block each time, it risks losing sight of their business goals, losing customers or losing a lot of money. When there’s one of you, and a multitude of them, this is an impossible game to play.

As a real world consumer-facing example, think about Apple Music Connect. Was there a legitimate business reason that Apple went out and built Connect when there didn’t appear to be a market for yet another niche social media platform? What was the problem they were trying to solve, or was it developed solely so that they had an answer to similar products from the competition? Importantly in this case, the actual music experience itself is often negatively compared to its biggest rival Spotify and instead of resolving this fundamental issue Apple have continued to invest heavily in a feature that no one appears to use. Organisations need to think more carefully about where the problems they have are, and what the justification for the decisions they take is.

Moving forward, there essentially needs to be a shift in mentality here and the mantra 'Make it, don’t react to it' needs to be considered. Businesses shouldn’t be throwing good money at each and every disruptive technology that hits the pages of TechCrunch.

The building blocks of innovation

One major fallacy around innovation is the belief that technology is the be-all and end-all of success for these start-ups. Firstly, disruptive technology doesn’t mean innovation. Put simply, innovation is about how we do things, and the culture in which we do them. It doesn’t necessarily mean being the first to adopt something, rather, it means working differently and better than anyone else in the market, ensuring people will actually want the product or service you’re offering.

Technologies fulfill specific aims that should sit within a wider framework of strategy for innovation. To make sure you have the balance in check, recce the resources and capital you have to invest in technology and see how this aligns against your various business goals. Good implementation often comes from a candid answer to the question, ‘What’s the problem we’re trying to solve here and why do we need to be building it?’

Cultural roadblock

Not only should business leaders have identified quite clearly which problems and reasons these are, they also need to have considered whether the rest of the company is culturally ready to accommodate the changes.

With so much more to technology acquisition than a simple cost sheet, the role of the CIO has to have evolved. They must be prepared to work with employees across the business to establish what skills are needed to make the most of this technological change. This means listening to and acting on the feedback that they provide about what makes them tick and enables them to do their best work.

As the technology and culture moves into alignment, the right technology partner can offer further help in forecasting the technology trends worth investing in, and how they can be taken advantage of well into the future. By working in cohesion, the CIO can lead the journey towards better understanding the legitimate business reasons for undertaking a digital transformation project, rather than just blindly following herd mentality.

Rudi de Sousa, CTO at software engineering consultancy YLD