Opinion: Innovation has a human face – tech is just a tool

If you want to move forward, steer clear of protectionism and build a culture of knowledge-sharing, says Web Applications chief executive Craig Dean

Web Applications chief executive Craig DeanSuch has been the pace of technological advancement in our lifetime that the word innovation seems to have become synonymous with technology.

Sitting in my office in a converted mill in the heart of the industrial north, I find myself reflecting on innovation constantly. I am reminded that the origins of the word span back not just to the start of the internet age, or the age of the transistor, but way back, past the dawn of the industrial revolution and into the Middle Ages, at least.

When people talk about innovation they associate it with something new, and that is an easy mistake to make. The word itself descends from the Latin ‘innovare’, which is itself formed from ‘novus’ which gives us the word ‘new’. However, an accurate translation is ‘to renew or change’.

My dull fascination with etymology aside, I can’t think of a more vital point on which to focus – innovation is about change.

As a technology provider, it is easy to think that I would subscribe to the notion that the route to success is buying a new system. Don’t get me wrong; if you’re in the market I will happily sell you one! However, when I talk to new customers the first thing I say to them is that purchasing a system is actually the easy bit – changing their business is where the project will really succeed, or fail.

When I say changing their business, I am really starting to talk about the way their people not only work, but the way they think. Innovation is all about adaptability, and adaptability is all about the kind of people you employ. When we recruit, we do not test for what people already know, in our industry that would be a losing battle as what they know will be of little value in a couple more years.

Instead, we look for a desire to grow, to learn, and most importantly, to change. It’s a running joke in our office that you should look before you sit down in case someone has been moved into your seat; we never let people get too comfortable with the status quo.

In technology it is easy for people to develop a silo mentality, specialising to the point of protectionism. It is a natural temptation to jealously guard our hard-won solutions, to establish dominance in our chosen field.

That kind of protectionism is the enemy of change and is counterproductive not only for the business, but for the individual, who finds himself typecast and ultimately side-lined. Everyone knows a colleague who is the only one that knows how to do that critical process. Rooting them out is the first step to creating a positive culture for change.

Instead, it is important to create an environment of constant learning and constant teaching – or knowledge sharing. When people are placed in boxes they stop innovating, when they are set free to teach others they solidify their own understanding and develop a desire to learn more themselves.

So technology is not innovation, it is just a tool; used correctly it frees up people to work smarter, and allows them to change. Technology does not drive innovation, people do.

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