Mashing up cheap technologies with his son at home to create cool new products got CA's Peter Waterhouse thinking about the importance of experimentation for businesses and their CIOs.

CIO Experiment

My teenage son and I have birthdays that are pretty close together. We also share a common love of technology, which probably explains why selecting gifts has never been much of a problem. This year for example, I bought my son an expansion pack for his beloved LEGO Mindstorms, while he presented me with a Raspberry Pi which, to the uninitiated, is a credit card sized computer that costs less than $35 and is eagerly being snapped up by pseudo nerds like myself.

We were both ecstatic.

After some time hacking our own gadgets, my son suggested we integrate our technologies. It was a great idea.

Pretty soon we were combining the motors, blocks and sensors of LEGO Mindstorms with Raspberry Pi circuitry and software code to build all kinds of crazy contraptions – like automated book readers and house plant watering systems. Furthermore, it was much easier than I expected because, with access to open source code libraries, API’s and cloud services, we could quickly develop working prototypes, and all without once relying on my pathetic programming skills.

“innovation is open to consumers who can develop their own applications and services, fund them from the crowd and – here’s the really cool part – even monetize them.”

Apart from demonstrating how easily tech hobbyists can exploit the Internet of Things, embedded software and Cloud Computing, this exercise got me thinking a lot about innovation in the enterprise and the role CIO’s as ‘experimenters.'

Innovation Then and Now

When I started my career in enterprise computing, innovation (if it existed at all) was the domain of research and development. Ideas were nurtured in a lab and funded internally. They also took what seemed like a lifetime to reach prototype stage, and required specialized smarts and knowledge. Now things are very different, and as my own experimental forays indicate, innovation is open to consumers who can develop their own applications and services, fund them from the crowd and – here’s the really cool part – quickly even monetize them.

Welcome to the Application Economy – a world where anyone with experimental flare and a few bucks to spend could perhaps unseat a traditional business model. Now, folks with a credit card can buy compute capacity to scale their tinkering and get immediate access to endless supplies of open source libraries, code and APIs that connect and bring to life the Internet of Things.

If these capabilities can be exploited by the ‘crowd’, isn’t it logical that CIOs should be capitalizing on them too? Shouldn’t CIOs be adding ‘experimentation’ to their charter? They should, because true business leaders are doing it already.

No Fear and Loathing in Failure

Great companies recognize that software is the essential sauce that, when added to a smorgasbord of products and services, can actually transform business. Due to the dynamics of consumer-driven computing, they realize that timing is essential; that a misjudged experiment carries less penalty than not being in the game at all. To them, agility is everything – operating with a mindset of rapidly delivering minimal viable products that can be enhanced, updated, even morphed completely – as market conditions change and new opportunities arise.

To these businesses, there’s no fear and loathing in failure. On the contrary, failing fast and learning from it is openly encouraged. As such, tired adages like “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” have been dismissed by a collaborative culture thriving on change and experimentation.

Some would argue, of course, that experimentation is the domain of startups and web-scale cloud companies, but I simply don’t buy into that. Now, established enterprises across every vertical are reshaping their brands and value propositions with software. These high performers instill a rampant culture of innovation, performing digitized experiments in real-time with their customers – even at times where making change matters might be the most difficult, but also has the greatest business impact.

For uber-level experimenters there is no place for discussions around IT and business alignment; rather, the two organizations are fused into a cohesive, almost symbiotic entity where success is gauged by shared business metrics and outcomes. For them, IT capability isn’t judged on keeping the technical lights on, but how brightly they make the business shine – like filling the business pipeline with more frequent software deployments, reducing business lead times, and ruthlessly eliminating waste.

Back to family tech, I can’t help thinking how powerful experimentation can be. In my case, geeky collaboration and shared goals fuelled our inventions. What’s more, our ideas and innovations weren’t limited by cost and technical constraints.

Coming to terms with this democratization of knowledge and innovation must become a top agenda item for CIOs. If a lousy coder and his teenage son can invent something cool in the garage, then why can’t enterprise IT? Maybe what’s holding you back are the technical fiefdoms that, sadly, still exist in the IT organization, or is a management team fighting tooth and nail to prevent change?

But whatever the reason, CIOs should recognize that access to the keys that unlock innovation is no longer controlled by ‘castle IT’ – they’re available to anyone.

Now if you’ll excuse me I must get back to the garage. I have an interesting idea for a cloud-based home security system. It might just be a winner.

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