New job title – new focus

One of the advantages I have found to getting old is the depth of experience that I have available to draw on when faced with new challenges and new environments. Since starting my new job, I’ve needed to shift my focus and reflect and question, and I have found it useful to think back across all those years of varied experiences and to draw on successes and failures from the past, reshaped for the present or the future. Sometimes I get odd comments about someone my age being involved with new technology, but as long as I keep an open mind, am willing to learn and question, experiment and listen, I don’t think my age should have anything to do with how effective I can be.

So what does innovation mean? Has the meaning changed over the last 20 years? I don’t even remember the term being used 20 years ago in the same way it is now, especially in libraries. I think we felt that our role was clear, that we knew what our customers expected of us and the technology (such as it was). The internet and more importantly, the interactive web, has changed all that.

As it is part of my job title, I thought it was important to identify what innovation means to me. Many people behave and speak as if they think it means finding uses for and implementing social media, or playing with all the new gadgets. I think it includes those things, but I think it is much broader. I like the Wikipedia definition – Innovation is a change in the thought process for doing something, or the useful application of new inventions or discoveries. I’m particularly interested in looking at how we use what we already have, as so often we only use a fraction of the tools or systems or functionality that we already have available. Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean expense or investment, but perhaps only a new way of thnking or new processes. But sometimes it also means a complete change to a well established way of doing something which requires a whole heap of new technology to underpin it.

There are whole disciplines of study and work around innovation. A few years ago I participated in a leadership training programme, and one of the workshops was on innovation. It taught me a lot, and I found it interesting that it was considered important enough to include along with financial management and sustainability. Gartner has done quite a bit of research into innovation in IT, and they recommend adopting a methodology. Their STREET methodology suggests Scope, Track, Rank, Evaluate, Evangelize and Transfer are essential activities. At least this reminds us that throwing a new gadget, system or process into a workplace isn’t sufficient. At yesterday’s Apple University Consortium presentation at Griffith Uni, we were reminded that adding or changing technology doesn’t of itself change learning outcomes – the pedagogy and curriculum needs to change to take advantage of the technology before that can happen. While that would appear self-evident, it appears to be forgotten far too often.

I think it is equally important to consider innovation as a fit for a specific organisation. Even if an organisation claims to be innovative or want to be innovative, do they actually enable and support innovation, or do the organisational culture and processes work against innovation? A Gartner consultant asked me, when we were discussing innovation, where the organisation I was working for at the time wanted to position itself in relation to the Hype cycle. Specifically, was the organisation prepared to invest in a new technology when it was unproven, with all the associated risks? Or did it want to wait until the technology was low risk? Or were the implementation lead times so lengthy due to rigid governance and excessive processes that by default the technology would be well established before it could be deployed?

If an organisation has a conservative risk-averse culture, a desire to be innovative may be contrary to the existing culture and the organisation may require significant cultural change before innovation is possible. Accepting high levels of risk requires accepting the possibility of failure – and that can be difficult for organisations that depend on their reputation and/or who are under close scrutiny from the public or the media. Many organisations are working hard to satisfy their existing customers and find it hard to see why or how potential disruptive technologies should be investigated. This takes foresight and courage, and a willingness to look to the past to see patterns that can be used as warnings for the future.

Today Stefan Lindegaard on his blog 15inno collated a number of interesting readings relating to innovation. All of these contain some pearls of wisdom regarding innovation, as do many of Stefan’s other posts. But it is essential to put innovation into the context and culture of organisations and the belief systems and world views of the people who will need to adopt it, work with it, change to accomodate it, and realise the benefits from it. If the innovation is to achieve the desired outcomes, those people should be involved in planning and driving the innovations, and owning them from initiation.

I believe the major inhibitor of innovation is the difficulty to step back and see the need or opportunities when people feel overwhelmed, stressed and uninspired or are just plain too busy. That is the joy in my new role – I have a mandate to take those steps back and explore, investigate, find the needs, and learn what the community wants to do differently – and find the innovations that can help make that happen. There will be many challenges, but I look forward to them and the opportunity to make a difference.

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