I had a wonderful conversation with NS Bala recently, and I’m delighted to share his opinions and insights with you in this week’s post.
First, some background: Bala is the Senior Vice President and Global Head for the Manufacturing & High-Tech Industry Strategic Business Unit of Wipro Technologies. The division employs 9,000 people and contributes over 19% of the global revenues of Wipro Technologies.
Over the years, Bala has restructured the business unit to deepen its focus on specific sub-industry segments, building a strong customer advisory capability and offering integrated services across business process, applications and infrastructure. He has also been instrumental in driving innovation in delivery through models such as the Factory Model and Center for Integrated Global Management of Applications (Cigma), which won Wipro the NASSCOM Innovation Award and was featured in the book, Bangalore Tiger by Steve Hamm.
Bala’s pioneering use of Toyota Production Systems principles in application and software development was developed into a case study by the Harvard Business School and is now taught to MBA candidates.
From Bala’s perspective, successful innovation depends on a blend of scale and agility. IT is a key player in innovation strategy because IT provides the “backbone” that enables and supports all of the various processes required for surfacing ideas, identifying and differentiating winning ideas, and moving those winning ideas swiftly into production.
“Volatility is here to stay,” says Bala. “Volatility in markets is the new normal. Your company’s ability to respond quickly to changes in markets is absolutely crucial for long-term success. So you have to be very agile.”
Despite widespread agreement that agility and innovation are important, many companies still find it difficult to embrace the cultural changes that are fundamental to innovation. Many companies are encumbered by traditional management hierarchies that try to control innovation from the top down. These companies tend to rely on “innovation labs,” special teams, or outside consultants to generate innovation. But those top-down approaches to innovation seem increasingly out of touch with the realities of modern global competition.
“The best ideas often come from the edge of the company, rather than from its core,” says Bala. “So you need the ability to gather ideas from the edge and refine them into new products and services that you can bring to market. Your ability to accomplish this swiftly is critical, because today’s markets move very rapidly.”
When Bala speaks about “edge,” he includes the company’s employees, partners and customers. In other words, you should expect one third of innovation to come from within the company and two thirds to come from outside the company.
This perspective might seem counterintuitive, but it’s very sensible, especially when you consider it in the light of recent findings in experimental neuroscience: innovative ideas generally occur while you are focusing on something else.
The best ideas often arise at unexpectedly. You can’t really predict the time or place. What you can and should do, however, is create a robust process for capturing those ideas whenever and wherever they arise.
That’s where the IT “backbone” becomes a genuine competitive advantage; it provides a platform and a repeatable process for continuous innovation. When you do something over and over, it becomes your culture. A company that supports a culture of innovation is going to be more agile – and therefore more competitive — than a company that relies on a top-down innovation strategy.
You can read more about Bala and other visionary IT leaders in my blog, The Transformational CIO. Please feel free to join our ongoing conversation about innovation, and email your comments to me at email@example.com
You can also order copies of my newest book, On Top of the Cloud (Wiley, 2012) from Amazon and other online vendors.