By Bob Violino, TechWeb


Creating a culture of innovation is more critical than ever to a company’s success. Customers and business partners expect organizations to embrace new and inventive ways of providing services, building and delivering products, and communicating and collaborating.

Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes, and with today’s highly connected, tech-savvy workforce and customer base, it can come from virtually anywhere inside and outside the organization.

Among the most vital sources of innovation for businesses today are students. Having college and university students help drive innovation not only gives companies access to new ideas, but brings enterprises into closer contact with the people who are the future of the business world.

Imagine Cup, a program sponsored by Microsoft, is one example of how students can help drive innovation. Imagine Cup, now in its 10th year, is a technology competition that gives students an opportunity to use their creativity and knowledge of technology to help solve global challenges and make a difference in the world. The program has grown into a global competition, and some 358,000 students representing 183 countries and regions registered for the Imagine Cup 2011 Competition.

One of the winning teams in the 2011 program, India Rose, created an application to help autistic children communicate. Thanks to a system based on pictograms and a voice synthesizer, autistic children can string together a series of symbols to create a sentence that is then spoken out loud by a computer.

“The ability to communicate in such a manner means that those living with autism can now do more tasks independently, without a caretaker to speak for them,” says Anthony Froissant, a student at the University of Orléans in France and a member of the team. Froissant says India Rose, named for the young girl who inspired the project, aims to port the application to all major platforms, including Windows 7 and 8, Android and iOS, by the summer of 2012.

The idea for the project stemmed from a meeting the students had with the parents of an autistic child. “The family explained their needs to us, and when we realized how simple, but also how helpful this idea would be, we decided it was our chance to bring these people some relief,” says Froissant, who is studying for a master’s degree in business informatics.

The students wanted to create something that would be useful and make people's lives easier. “The project was driven by all the families we met during the design phase of the application, and we always made sure to keep them close over the course of our development,” Froissant says.

The application isn't limited to autistic children. “It can be used by autistic adults too, so it could help integrate them much more into the workplace,” Froissant says. “It could also be used when traveling abroad, because the pictograms/voice synthesizer [combination] allows people who don't speak the same language to communicate really easily, so the possibilities could be quite endless.”

Another winning group, Team Hermes from Ireland, developed an application that monitors and evaluates driving behavior and provides real-time feedback to both the driver and a third party.

“If the driver behaves poorly, the device alarms much like a seat belt alarm,” says James McNamara, a team member and student at the Institute of Technology in Sligo. The monitored data is sent to and stored on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. The data is also displayed on a Silverlight website using Bing Maps, with sections of a completed journey color-coded depending on the driver’s behavior. If any dangerous driving behavior is recorded, updates are sent to a “vehicle owner” mobile app created by the team.

“So, in essence, through making drivers aware of their dangerous driving habits, they can use the tools we provide to make themselves safer drivers,” McNamara says.

Road deaths are a huge problem in Ireland, McNamara says, and the team wanted to build a system to reduce road traffic accidents. “We designed a system that is globally adaptable and scalable, as this is a global problem,” he says.

Research into new and emerging technologies can be a driver for innovation in new work practices, McNamara says. “Our system uses the Azure cloud as a conduit for communicating between various form factors,” he says. “It allows us to build a highly connected system that keeps all the parties involved virtually connected. This connected state, which [enables] real-time information sharing, allows [people to] use time more efficiently and become more effective employees.”

For CIOs, this type of student-driven innovation is important.

“We used to talk about digital immigrants and digital natives. The students participating in Imagine Cup are ‘social and mobile natives’; they have grown up with Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, Androids,” says Joe Drouin, senior vice president and CIO at Kelly Services, a provider of workforce services based in Troy, Mich.

“A lot of us in business today sit around and try to figure out how to take these technologies and back them into the way we've always worked,” Drouin says. “Because these things are so ingrained in this generation, they come at it the other way — they inherently bring a social and mobile approach to solving real-world problems in creative ways.”

Kelly’s IT department is aiming to be an environment that appeals to the next-generation workforce, so — among other things —  it deploys an internal social networking platform for collaboration and communication, embraces mobile technology and takes a consumer-design approach to how it develops applications.

“We hope doing these things can help promote innovation and creativity, and make Kelly a place [where] the next generation of talent wants to work,” Drouin says.

To foster a culture of innovation, CIOs need to create new processes and technologies that drive this culture. It’s all about thinking differently, rather than holding onto antiquated processes and environments—some of which are holdovers from the age of big iron.

What changes is your organization making to create a culture of innovation?