The Role of Innovation Within IT

Wayne Montague reflects on the importance of innovation within IT, and why he placed an emphasis on it while teaching students in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program.

Wayne Montague (MSIT '00), Adjunct Instructor, MSIT Industry Advisory Board memberWayne Montague (MSIT '00) built a career on innovation. Among his most notable accomplishments is helping to launch the McDonald's Innovation Center, a worldwide hub for product and process innovations deployed in 33,000 restaurants across 120 countries.

After a decade helping prepare students to incorporate innovation into their own careers in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program, Montague is retiring as an adjunct instructor from MSIT. He will continue his role as a member of MSIT's Industry Advisory Board (IAB).  

"Wayne has been a valuable member of the MSIT community for years, and his experiences have helped countless students and helped shape how we think of innovation within MSIT," said MSIT director Randall Berry. "While we'll miss him in the classroom, we're excited to have him continue his role on the IAB and look forward to continuing to put an emphasis on innovation throughout our curriculum."

Montague recently took time to reflect on his career, and why an understanding of innovation is critical for IT teams and leaders within the IT space.

From your perspective, what does innovation mean?

I use a broad definition coined by Clayton Christensen: "A technology is the process by which an organization transforms labor, capital, materials, and information into products and services of greater value. An innovation is a change in one or more of the components of an organization’s technology." This broad definition covers both products and process innovations supported by novel business models. This idea allows students to see their roles, often as implementers of IT-driven process change, as innovators. 

What is the biggest misunderstanding about innovation, particularly as it relates to businesses?

Most firms develop sustaining innovations, meaning brand extensions or upgraded features, within the same platform. This is the bread and butter for most innovators; however, as firms grow and become more successful, they often ignore the needs of large pools of users, mostly via price or access barriers. This lays the groundwork for future disruptive innovations that, in the long run, will replace the existing firms.   

An example of this is Kodak. They dominated the chemistry-driven film business and invented the CCD digital chip that is at the heart of most digital cameras. Leadership didn't know what to do with that technology, so they licensed it to firms like Canon and Fuji. This disruption eventually put Kodak into bankruptcy.  

Many firms, especially large successful ones, assume they will be in business forever, but this is not the case. Only 15 percent of the Fortune 500 firms from the late 1950s remain, and the average corporate life expectancy for a Fortune500 company has dropped from about 60 years in the 1920s to roughly 13 years today.

You've said you will continue consulting with your company, Castletown Innovations, but as you look back on your professional career, what are you most proud of?

Three things: Helping to make life better for lots of McDonald's operators, customers, and investors; helping the next generation of innovators; and learning something new every day. 

Why is it so important for IT professionals to have a firm understanding of innovation?

IT teams and IT leadership like chief information officers or chief technology officers are often relegated to playing an "enabler" role for leadership innovation decisions. They're told to "go implement XYZ as soon as possible," and this is often because they are perceived as too technical – they speak technobabble and don't understand the firm's business model. Team members with an IT background can lead innovation teams as well as, if not better than, other core team members. To do that, they need to be educated on the links between solving customer problems and the technology and business model pivots necessary to implement the solutions and gain rewards over time. This education is what students receive in MSIT. 

Read what Wayne and other IAB members had to say about helping IT leaders bridge the communications gap in their business. 

What advice would you give to up-and-coming IT professionals, or for that matter, any entrepreneur who has dreams of innovating something?

Start with the customer, not with your idea for a product or service. Spend the time understanding the problems or pain points customers have trying to complete their "jobs," then look for simple, low-cost solutions, not just technology-based solutions. Realize that your idea will, at first, will fail when exposed to real customers, but the key is to capture knowledge and then rapidly change your offerings to better fit the customers’ needs.

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