Businesses are limited in their ability to innovate by their reluctance to understand and adopt new forms of technology.
This is the thesis that Vinnie Mirchandani, a consultant, author and former Gartner analyst, presents in his new book The New Polymath. “The new polymath is an enterprise that is becoming comfortable with the whole spectrum of information technology and beyond, looking at biotech, nanotech, cleantech and healthtech,” Mirchandani explains.
He believes there are some companies that embody these values. One, he says, is Hospira, a US pharmaceuticals company that has developed a drug infusion system that checks a given dosage against a patient’s medical records before automatically administering the drug. “They are not a technology company, but they are blending barcode technology, scanning technology, software algorithms and more into this solution.” Mirchandani describes this combination of technologies as “compound innovation”.
Another example of a polymath organisation is BMW, which Mirchandani says is pioneering alternative driver interfaces, including a steering wheel that vibrates if another vehicle is dangerously close. “Here is a car company that is innovating with user interfaces.”
But if innovation is simply a matter of learning about more technologies, why do organisations find it so hard? One reason, says Mirchandani, is the fact that people are encouraged to specialise in their careers. “During the Renaissance, people were encouraged to be good at many things,” he says. “Today, that’s a dying breed. Even in business, we encourage people to be very siloed.”
That specialisation happens at an organisational level too. The IT department, Mirchandani says, has been typecast in a particularly narrow role. “IT was sent into the woods at some point in the late 1990s; we had Y2K overruns, we had ERP overruns, we had e-business which was overhyped. In the early 2000s, therefore, a lot of CIOs started reporting to the CFO and what the CFO wants is compliance and control.”
This puts IT departments, and the executives who run them, in a difficult position when it comes to innovation. On the one hand, Mirchandani says, “they have a 30-year lead in terms of deployment of technology, understanding its cost and how to deal with technology suppliers.” This means that “CIOs are extremely well positioned as we move into a world of more compound innovation.” But Mirchandani argues that innovating while serving the ‘compliance and control’ agenda is beyond even the most polymathic of IT executives. “You can’t expect the same person to do both – they are mirror opposites.”
One solution, he says, would be to “break the CIO role into two. There needs to be a chief security or chief compliance officer and there needs to be a chief innovation officer.”
Becoming a truly innovative organisation is not simply a matter of coining a new executive title, however. Nor is it about farming ideas from the workforce, he says. “If you try to just beat innovation out of employees, it doesn’t happen.” Instead, he argues, “it comes down to a small group of leaders who are given a reasonable amount of budget to explore and develop new ideas. Not too much budget though, as constraints drive innovation.”
Overall, Mirchandani challenges people in all walks of business to “think bigger, because technology is allowing us to do much bigger things than we could before”.