How COVID-19 can drive innovation

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely go down in history as a significant innovation trigger of our century. It is the first time in human history there has been, more or less, a globally consistent response to a pandemic.

Global network and communications technologies have been instrumental in enabling governments to share information about their responses to the coronavirus and communicate with their citizens about actions that prevent the spread of the virus. This global response has been a sort of live test of how well these technologies enable remote work, and it seems for the most part that these technologies have passed the test.

Organizations continue finding ways to innovate despite today’s challenges. This includes everything from how they work with employees to how they deliver services to customers. We should fully expect new technologies and business models as a result of the solutions developed to meet the many challenges this virus has presented.

Innovation is essential for organizations to be resilient to the virus. A lot has already been discussed and written about the importance of constant innovation from a holistic perspective. I think it is equally as important to focus on innovation resulting from individuals and what organizations can do to help them.

Last year, James Evans, a professor at the University of Chicago, published a paper along with two other researchers titled, “Large Teams Have Developed Science and Technology; Small Teams Have Disrupted It.” By analyzing the teamwork product of over 50 million papers, patents and software products over 60 years, they found that large teams tend toward popular but ultimately incremental innovation, while individuals tend toward more novel, disruptive ideas. While their paper focused on global innovation, I think this conclusion is relevant in individual organizations — focus on empowering individuals and small teams in innovation programs.

Investing in passion

One way a company can center itself around innovation is by encouraging employees to pursue their passions through programs like our Research Fellows program, which enables their brightest minds to explore emerging technologies. We want our employees to pursue passion projects, even — and especially — if those aren’t tied to their job description, and Research Fellowships enable them to do that. At SAIC, we then showcase their work at our annual Tools, Techniques, and Technology (T3) conference, an annual company event celebrating innovation.

By doing this for several years, we have learned that innovative ideas can come from anywhere, not just from the engineering corps of the company. For example, an individual on our marketing and communications team designed and built an unmanned aerial vehicle to capture video footage that was also recently used in our Internet of Battlefield Things internal R&D work as a broader sensor platform. And a member of our human resources organization built interesting algorithms to help with people analytics.

A few years ago, one of our Research Fellows expressed interest in microservice architectures, so we awarded him a Research Fellowship to investigate how to apply microservices to app modernization problems. His initial work was very promising, and the person defining investment roadmaps for our app modernization capabilities noticed his work at a corporate-wide event. We then used formal R&D funding to facilitate migrating monolithic applications to microservices. This kind of architecture is valuable to our customers who want to modernize their application portfolio. This small passion project morphed into a solution that is now instrumental in supporting our military and Department of Defense clients’ migration to the cloud.

These kinds of microprojects that investigate leading-edge ideas that employees are passionate about can lead to significant advancements in capabilities. We’re excited that despite the pandemic, T3 2020 will happen virtually in a few months and a new round of solutions will be presented.

Resilience in innovation

Small research projects such as these are low-cost, provide a potential outlet for employees who are otherwise fatigued by the monotony of remote work, and lead to significant new capabilities and sources of revenue in the future. The biggest journeys start with such small steps and can further define an enterprise’s resilience.

For an enterprise to successfully weather the storm of COVID-19, it has to invest in its innovators. Enterprises must forge onward and be powered by their innovation engines. Find ways to enable your people to solve your customers’ greatest challenges, because right now, it’s likely that many are facing just that. The more a company spurs innovation, the more successful it will be in these uncertain times.

About the Author

Charles Onstott is senior vice president and chief technology officer of SAIC.

He is responsible for driving SAIC’s technology strategy which emphasizes development of solutions and strategic alliances across a broad portfolio of technology capabilities, including information technology, training and simulation, advanced analytics, hardware and platform integration, and logistics and supply chain. He oversees SAIC’s research and development, strategic alliances, product management capabilities, and the SAIC Fellows Program. During his 25 years in the technology industry, Charles has been a successful innovator and served in many capacities, including technical leadership, general management, and executive roles.

Prior to his role as SAIC’s CTO, Charles was an SVP and Service Line Manager for SAIC’s services in key emerging technologies, Cloud, Cyber and Data Science. Under his leadership SAIC significantly grew its capabilities and revenues in these services, including expanding SAIC’s cyber practice in to new areas and customers, significantly growing SAIC’s cloud computing business across an array of customer markets, and leading the development of SAIC’s capabilities in Data Science and analytics.

Early in his career, he was the Chief Technologist for SAIC’s Integrated Services Management Center (ISMC) which was SAIC’s most successful IT service delivery organization. He was responsible for overall technology leadership as well as program portfolio management. He has developed IT infrastructure solutions that support more than 400,000 users worldwide in multiple industries with a focus on Federal Civilian agencies and DoD. He has managed numerous IT service and data center consolidation projects. These projects produced significant cost savings in systems development and maintenance while improving overall customer satisfaction.

As an early advocate for cloud computing, Charles was on the forefront of developing SAIC’s capabilities in cloud computing, including providing executive oversight in 2011 for SAIC’s implementation of its own Enterprise Private Cloud. In 2013, he established SAIC’s Enterprise Solutions Lab which is a hybrid cloud used for research and development and is a cloud computing center of excellence. More recently, he has been focused on developing SAIC’s capabilities in X as a Service delivery.

Charles has long been fascinated by the American experience of living at the intersection of advanced technology, rapid innovation, and a generally religious culture. He has two teenagers who challenge his thinking on privacy issues. In his spare time, he participates in Mountain Bike endurance races.

Reader Comments

Wed, Jul 22, 2020 Health Times

Agree that it's a significant driver of innovation regardless of the field - business, health etc. It forced us to adapt and be creative on how we deal with the things we do.

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