Innovation is a hot topic in the IT industry. CIOs routinely deal with new technologies or find themselves on the leading edge of new ideas in disciplines from project management to HR. However, a goldmine of innovation exists in every IT department that is largely ignored by CIOs: IT’s ubiquitous nature.

IT is ingrained in every facet of the modern corporation. From marketing to receivables, there is likely a system or process in place that was developed by, or maintained by, IT. While this deep integration with individual business units creates frequent laments about subjects like alignment and customer service, the CIO is one of the few officers of the corporation with a robust knowledge of the processes and practices of nearly every facet of a corporation. For example, this unique positioning might allow the CIO to see how data captured by Marketing might be highly valuable to a new production initiative, or how a new system or process in AR might be hampering the efforts of the sales force.

“Getting a seat at the table” and a place in the strategic planning process falls into place effortlessly when you can understand and articulate the impacts of strategy on the corporation as a whole, or identify accelerators that would not be apparent to those involved in a process at too detailed or too high a level. Innovation is the CIO’s “secret weapon” that bridges the gap between other members of the C-suite focused on individual process areas, and the CEO, responsible for steering the company at the highest level. Acting to bridge the two moves the CIO from the periphery of the C-suite players into the inner sanctum. To accelerate the innovation process, and use the CIO’s unique insights into the workings of the company to maximum benefit, you should:

Become a student of your company

Everyone in the C-suite should have a robust understanding of the company’s markets, products, challenges and opportunities and the CIO is no exception. With this common understanding, you can orient your process and technical knowledge of the company and have a base knowledge that is shared with your peers. You can appreciate the CEO’s strategic objectives and talk about them as a peer once armed with this knowledge, and couch more technical discussions in terms of the company’s products and markets rather than dealing with blank, uninterested stares as you explain the latest and greatest technical wizardry.

Talk strategy, not “solutions”

We’re obsessed with “solutions” in IT, from vendors pitching the latest black box that will magically generate a massive ROI, to enterprise software implementations that promise the world once you commit to a multi-year implementation. There are no magic bullets, and talk of “solutions” furthers the stereotype of the CIO as a naïve techie. Use your macro-level knowledge of the company described above and combine it with your detailed process knowledge to identify hidden value, and you’re thinking and offering strategy. Identifying high-value data squirreled away in corporate data warehouses that can generate massive returns for little to no investment is strategic thinking, pitching the latest beige boxes is not. Just imagine what would have happened if a CIO of one of the embattled financial institutions had done some data mining into the real risk levels of mortgage-backed investments and provided some advance warning of the current financial crisis to his or her C-suite peers.

Embrace “The Business”

It’s always amusing to hear IT folks talk about “the business” as if it were some mythical demon, at odds with, and a foe of, IT. IT is a business unit like any other, and should invest itself and collaborate with every other business unit to further the objectives of the company. Embracing the business does not mean you blindly follow orders and bow to every whim of your counterparts, rather you partner with them to help accelerate the execution of the company’s objectives. The day where no one in your IT shop is referring to “the business” or “the customer” when talking about their peers outside IT is the day IT can take its place as a corporate innovation engine.

Find your Walkman

Sony revolutionized the music industry with the Walkman portable music player by developing a product nobody knew they needed. By looking at how people were using music, and the available technology, Sony created a revolutionary product that is the grandfather of today’s digital music players. Rather than merely providing what people are clamoring for from IT, step back from the daily grind and look for answers to questions no one has yet been able to articulate. Responding to every request is nice, but fixing the problems no one knew they had is priceless.

Don’t forget the cleanup crew

Building an innovative culture within IT is a noble and worthwhile effort, but success itself presents a risk. Innovators often leave a trail of destruction in their wake, leaping to the next challenge before the current task is complete, and abandoning new systems or processes before they are fully established. Fortunately, most IT shops are well-versed in a culture of providing care and feeding to newly established systems. Take care to extend these practices to new processes, and make sure your maintainers are not forgotten amidst the sound and fury of the innovators.

With an increased focus on innovation, IT starts articulating problems in business terms, and also offers solutions that consider the greater good of the corporation rather than the latest and greatest technology. An IT organization that succeeds in these five areas is truly a competitive weapon, and the CIO who presides over such an organization an invaluable asset.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology.  Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at