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Reinventing IT | Feature

Innovating the Future

IT organizations have reached a point where they must become innovators instead of builders. Here's how to foster an environment of innovation.

For the past 15 years, those of us in IT have built networks, both wired and wireless; we’ve created online learning systems and tech-enabled classrooms; we’ve built cyberinfrastructure for our research activities; we’ve automated every administrative system. While these systems will always require improvement and maintenance, the build and break/fix part is over. Most of what is to come will be from off-the-shelf solutions.

We have reached the end of the beginning, and must now turn our attention to being innovators instead of builders.

Information technology at Purdue University (IN) has had a string of recognized successes thanks to our ability to innovate. Our data analytics program, Signals, has been featured on NBC Nightly News and licensed by SunGard for use at other campuses. Our classroom mobile apps, such as HotSeat, Mixable, DoubleTake, and JetPack, have also received interest from both national media and potential commercial partners. And our HUBzero platform is being used by more than 40 scientific, medical, and engineering portals with more than 600,000 users worldwide.

We have been able to make the transition from builders to innovators not just because we have many smart and creative people—that’s true of nearly every university campus—but because we’ve been able to create an environment focused on innovation. Here are the keys to creating that environment:

1. Innovation relies on preparation. 
Innovation isn't luck. It springs from good management. Before you can create an environment of innovation, your institution first has to have trust in your everyday operations. However you define reliability—whether it’s good scores on customer service surveys or five nines reliability—if you can’t deliver on your core services, nobody wants to listen when you say you have something new for them to try.

Once you are operationally credible, and you have a lean, efficient organization, you will have the freedom—and most likely the resources—to invest in innovation.

2. Innovate where it is strategic, standardize everywhere else.
You must have a clear understanding of your institution’s strategic goals, and make those the goals of every office on campus. At Purdue, we aim to develop successful students and to make research discoveries, so we have directed our innovation efforts toward those goals. Our classroom technologies help students become more engaged and achieve higher grades; our research technologies reduce the time required to perform scientific experiments and simulations.

We don’t need innovation in areas that are not strategic—in those areas a commodity solution is the best choice. For example, we could devote thousands of staff hours and tens of thousands of dollars to developing the best payroll system for a large research university, but it wouldn’t be noticeably better than standard payroll software. And it certainly wouldn’t help students be successful or help researchers make discoveries. In this area, a standardized solution is preferable.

3. Innovation combines creativity and operations.
Like most colleges and universities, Purdue has a lot of very smart people, a few brilliant people, and many creative individuals. As a result, we have plenty of ideas. But ideas do not equal innovation.

To develop a product or service that can be considered an innovation, it has to have several characteristics, such as reliability, the ability to scale, ease of use, and a return on investment. Beyond that, the institution must be willing to make staff available to answer questions, to continue development (with compensation, of course), and, in some cases, to provide the resources needed to keep the technology operating.

4. Innovation is the responsibility of every manager.
Because innovation requires a combination of creativity and operations, I require innovation from all of my managers.

In those IT units that are dedicated to infrastructure or operations, there may be few opportunities for innovation in hardware or software, but there are opportunities in other areas. Managers can show innovation in how they work out contracts, for example, or in how they handle HR or recruit top staff. Everyone shares the responsibility for both innovation and operations.

Conversely, I insist that staff in units that spend most of their time developing new products also have operational responsibilities. They need firsthand knowledge of the realities of the environment into which their products will be introduced.

5. An idea must produce measurable results.
Proposals for new products or services are often presented to us that—at first glance—appear to be good ideas. The problem in higher education is that these products are often rushed to market without any clear indication that they actually make a difference.

At Purdue, we conduct research on the efficacy of our technologies, and we have data that shows that our classroom technologies improve student engagement, or retention, or learning. We know that our research technologies reduce both costs and “time to science.”

6. People who are always successful aren’t innovative.
To be a long-term success, you have to have failures. Experience matters. People who are working near their limit make mistakes and take risks that don’t always work out. That's fine. Someone who has only good news to share is probably cruising through his job and needs a good push.

7. Innovation stems from business relationships more than brainstorming.
I sometimes bring some of my most creative managers into meetings with vendors. With us working off each other's ideas, these meetings can be very productive. Yes, the companies want to earn our business, but we’re more willing to select them as a vendor if they work with us to take their technology beyond where it has gone before. 

Our relationship with Cisco is a case in point. A few years ago, we met with Cisco representatives to discuss a variety of networking issues, many of which were outside Cisco’s domain. But together we developed an innovative solution that allowed us to implement 802.11.n across campus, and to become one of the first universities to have 4G coverage.

Likewise, when we were researching ways to improve “speed to science,” the people at Intel presented us with an idea that eventually led to us building our Carter supercomputer, one of the first machines in the world to use the “Sandy Bridge” processor. This machine allows us to do research to identify cancer stem cells that previously had to be done manually. Our partnership has worked well for both of us, and allowed us to create solutions that would not have been possible on our own.

8. Innovation breeds innovation.
One characteristic of true innovation is that it inspires others to build creatively on top of it. We all know the story of the Apple iPhone: When it was introduced, it represented a significant step forward for a mobile device. However, it changed how we think of information technology only when thousands of developers began writing hundreds of thousands of apps for it.

We’ve seen the same thing on our own campus with HotSeat, our classroom discussion tool. When we released the product, we had our own ideas about how a faculty member might use it. But we’ve found that faculty are using it to engage students in ways that never occurred to us. When people invest their own creativity into a technology to make it better, that’s a great sign that the technology truly is innovative.

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