Innovation: Where IT Standards Should Stand

The use, re-use or definition of standards when implementing any type of IT solution has very powerful virtues. I’m going to outline them here so you can see how these standards play into the (often misunderstood) notion of innovation in corporate IT. We’ll then see where IT innovation truly happens in this context, while underpinning the importance of using or improve IT standards to support overall innovation effectiveness.

The Innate Virtues of IT Standards

  • Sharing knowledge.  Without standardization, each team works in its own little arena, unaware of potentially better ways of doing things and not sharing its own wisdom.  It is much easier to make all IT stakeholders aware of practices, tools or processes when they are standardized. Systematic use and continuous improvement of IT standards act as a powerful incentive for knowledge sharing.
  • Setting quality targets. Standards minimize errors and poor quality through the systematic use of good practices.  They encompass many facets, from effectiveness to security, to adaptability, to maintainability, and much more.
  • Focusing on what counts.  A green field with no constraints and no prior decisions to comply with might entice your imagination, but it can also drive you crazy if everything has to be defined and decided.  IT standards allow you to focus on what needs to be changed, defaulting all other decisions to the use of the existing standards.  
  • Containing unnecessary complexity.  The proliferation of IT technologies, tools, processes and practices in your corporate landscape is a scourge that impedes business agility.  Absence of standards interferes with knowledge sharing and mobility of IT resources.  Multiplicity of similar technologies makes your IT environment more difficult to comprehend, forcing scarce expert resources to focus on making sense out of the existing complexity rather than building the envisioned business value.

The use and continuous improvements of IT standards is one of the most effective cross-enterprise safeguards for IT effectiveness, IT quality, and in the end your business agility.

Despite all these advantages, there is a trend emerging in many organizations that puts these virtues at risk of not being present.

The Lab Trend

In the last few years, it has become mainstream strategy for large, established corporations to create parallel organizations, often called “labs”, that act as powerhouses to propel the rest of the organization into the new digitalized era of disruptive innovations.  This article is not about challenging this wisdom, which may be the only possible way —at least in the short-term— to relieve the organization from the burden of decades of organic development of IT assets and processes that slow down the innovation pace. 

Unfortunately, there are people in your organization who associate standards with the ‘old way’ of doing things.  After all, aren’t all standards created after innovation, to support the repeated mainstream usage of innovative tools, processes or technologies that came before them?

Making the leap that IT  standards should not be considered in the innovation process, not included in the development of prototypes or proofs of concept, or   — more simplistically  — not be part of anything close to innovative groups, is a huge mistake.

 The decision to use or not use a given IT standard depends on what you are innovating, and at what stage of the innovation process you are in.   The IT work required to implement business innovations is rarely wall-to-wall innovative.  Standards cannot —and should not— be taken out of the innovation process from start to finish.  I’d a go step further: standards should always be used except when the innovation requires redefining them.  But the latter case is exceptional.  To help you grasp the difference between true business innovation and its actual implementation, here’s a simple analogy:

The Nuts and Bolts of Innovation

In the construction industry, there are well known standards that determine when to use nails, when to use screws, and when to use bolts in building a structure.  It stipulates the reasons to choose one over the other (e.g. because nailing is much faster to execute and cheaper in materials costs). The standards also spell out how to execute: how many nails to drive, the size and spacing between them, safety precautions, etc.

Now suppose that your new business model is about building houses that can be easily dismantled and moved elsewhere. Let’s say to support a niche market of temporary housing for the growing cases of climate-related catastrophes.   You decide to build whole houses without ever using nails or screws by bolting everything.  You would make this decision to simplify dismantlement, easily moving the house and rebuilding it elsewhere.  The technical novelty here lies in the systematic use of bolts where the rest of the industry normally uses nails.  Bolts are slower to install and more expensive, but they would allow you to easily disassemble the house.  

But when a worker bolts two-by-six wood studs, the actual execution of bolting is not an innovation; it has been known for centuries and the execution standard can be used as is.  In other words, when a worker is on the site and bolting, the innovation has already occurred when the choice was made not to use nails or screws. The market disruptive strategy was determined before, and it is now time to apply bolting best practices and good craftsmanship.

No Ubiquitous IT Innovation in Corporate IT

For IT based business solutions, when the teams are in the phases of implementing the processes, systems and technologies, most of the business innovation has probably occurred in the previous phases.  

When IT staffs are actually building the technical components of your new modes of operation, the business innovation part has already occurred: it lies in the prior choices made during design.

The techies might be testing the innovation through some sort of a prototype, but it doesn’t make their work innovative. When you look at it from a high enough viewpoint, isn’t implementing a new business process with information technologies what corporate IT has been doing for decades?  

When building the IT components of innovative business solutions, where is the actual innovation?  Is it in the new business processes or in the way they are technically implemented?  Chances are that the real value is in the former, not the latter because your initial intention was to aim for  business value, not technical prowess.    

It may very well be that, at the IT shop-floor level, what needs to be done is to apply good practices and standards that have been around for years, if not decades.

In our era of multi-skills, cross-functional, autonomous, self-directed and agile teams  —  which are all busy growing new solutions that support constantly evolving business processes  —  there is a line that should not be crossed: thinking that innovation applies to everything, including the shop-floor level definition of good craftsmanship.  

Don’t Pioneer Without IT Standards

My observations are that when IT practitioners are part of teams dedicated to innovative business solutions, they often become overzealous, abandoning standardization and tossing tried-and-true practices out the window.   I’ve seen IT people making a clean-sweep of all established standards and proclaiming every part of a solution as innovative.   I’ve seen technical staff blindly pulling so-called innovative technologies into the equation with little understanding of their real contribution to business value.  This has a direct impact on the quality of the resulting work. Here’s how:

  1. : IT staff end up using bolts where nails would be fine or using nails where they should have used bolts;
  2. : new platforms are built with no standards used or defined.

In both cases, the impact on your future change projects is catastrophic: lack of shared knowledge, unknown quality levels, lost time and effort reinventing the world, and most importantly, creation of more unnecessary IT complexity.  The resulting assets will be hard to integrate, impossible to dismantle, incomprehensible by anyone else but those that created it, and costly to maintain.  In other words, your business agility will be seriously jeopardized.

The results from innovation without standards will fast-track you to the same burdensome position you tried to free yourself from with your old, outdated platforms.

The only way to avoid this unhealthy pattern is to make sure that the mandate is not just about innovating at any cost.  It must include the use and creation of standards, and limit the scope of change to what creates business value.

Set the Standard

First, your innovation team should not only devise new ways to do business: it must make it a priority to use and reuse standard practices and technologies, unless required to innovate. When a given standard is not applicable, their job should include to define the replacing one.  The idiom “to set the standard” earns all its significance: re-inventing business models that others will now run to catch or match, and defining the standards for your organization and future projects to use and leverage.  Your future business agility heavily depends on the systematic application of good craftsmanship in your current innovations.

New Technologies Need to Bring Value, Not Novelty

Secondly, your new parallel ‘lab’ organization should bear the onus of justifying the use of any new or different technology. How will it contribute to the innovative, business-oriented end-result that you seek?   When technologists are put in front of the enticing prospect of having no obligation to the use of any of the standards in place in your organization, they will jump at it.  It will often lead to the introduction of new technologies for the sake of it, based on no other justification than hunches, hearsay, or how attractive it may look when printed on a resume.

The use, reuse, and redefinition of IT standards should always be part of your innovation team’s mandate.  If not, your future business model will be made of foundational assets built as if there was no tomorrow.

Beware of falling into the trap of catching the contagious over-excitement about the scope of innovation.  Most of IT processes and components that result from business innovation can use mainstream practices and standard technologies. The legitimately innovative portion  — the one that really makes a difference —  is just a fraction of the whole undertaking, and very often, the truly novel part is simply not technological.

Provide Leeway But Set Quality Expectations

So, even if you rightfully decide to go down the path of creating parallel organizations, don’t allow these organizations to have too much leeway when it comes to standards..  Do not sign the cheque without a minimal set of formal expectations regarding sustainability, which must include standards compliance.  

The key is in clear accountabilities and coherent measures of performance. If you want to learn more about how poorly-distributed roles can sabotage the work of your corporate IT function, read this short but mind-changing business strategy book.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.