What Is a Chief Innovation Officer?

Improving the status quo and scaling it for maximum impact falls within the purview of the chief innovation officer.

by / August 17, 2016
Richard Culatta, chief innovation officer of Rhode Island David Kidd

The chief innovation officer (sometimes abbreviated as CINO) is the business world’s response to a fast-moving, technology-fueled marketplace. The evolution of technology has shortened the timeline on new product releases, hastened the pace at which customers expect to receive feedback and service, and created a more competitive world where today’s practices may not be good enough tomorrow. CINOs show organizations how to keep pace by integrating new ideas into an organization’s existing processes and infrastructure, most often through the use of modern technology.

The position of CINO sounds like an “idea man” role, but that’s only a small part of it, explained Richard Culatta, chief innovation officer of Rhode Island. Culatta represents a growing cadre of chief innovation officers starting to make their way into government. 

“Ideas are cheap,” Culatta said. “Everyone you talk to comes with ideas for how to make things better. The tricky part is saying ‘how do you actually execute that?’ … My goal is to actually come up with a pilot. Actually take something and identify where we have an opportunity to really make a difference. Usually it’s through lots of partnerships and bringing lots of people in that aren’t usually in the process.”

Understanding a CINO first requires understanding what “innovation” means. Innovation, Culatta explained, must meet two criteria — it’s something that dramatically improves the status quo and it’s something that can also be scaled up to reach a large number of people.

“Those are critical because what you have often is people who can come up with a solution that’s just amazing and has incredible results, but only works for the five people in your little pilot study,” said Culatta. “The reason that technology’s so key is because it’s very hard to take good ideas to scale without it.”

As a technology user, the CINO usually works closely with an organization’s chief information officer and other technology officials. CINOs may come up with lots of ideas, but it’s important to select ideas carefully before sharing them with others and to build a team and a plan before bringing it to implementation, Culatta explained. But that works out, because innovation is meant to take on the big problems.

“If I do that too soon, I burn people out,” he said. “If with every cool idea I come up with I go and ask somebody to start working on it, pretty soon they’re not answering my phone calls.”

For the last eight months, people have been taking Culatta’s phone calls. His office has been working on Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI), a program that is on schedule to bring computer science classes to every school in the state by December 2017. CS4RI was praised by President Obama in April as the kind of program that can bring to life his vision of equitable access to STEM education across the nation. It originated with the state admitting it had a serious problem, Culatta said.

“We didn’t have enough people building the skills that we needed to support the tech industry,” he said. “We realized that one of the problems was we only had 42 students in our K-12 system even take the [Advanced Placement Computer Science] exam. That’s horrendously bad.”

Culatta began innovating by gathering partners — school leaders, industry professionals, and private companies from organizations like Code.org, Bootstrapworld.org, and the University of Rhode Island. Then they started signing up schools. Teachers attended summer boot camps to learn how to teach the new classes and by this fall, half of the schools in the state will offer computer science classes. The second half are scheduled to offer the classes by next fall, and if they pull it off, Rhode Island will be the first state to offer computer science classes in every school.

Sometimes, innovation chiefs have dual roles, as is the case with Debra Lam, chief innovation and performance officer of Pittsburgh. Lam is also the equivalent of the city’s chief information officer (CIO), so in addition to heading technology strategy, she also maintains a strong focus on operational and tactical aspects of management. Having both functions in one role is a function of Pittsburgh’s relatively small size, but it was political recognition of innovation’s importance, via Mayor Bill Peduto, that allows Lam’s office to extend beyond a traditional IT management function where she is responsible merely to fix things and maintain operations.

There aren’t many CINOs in government, and part of the reason is that the role is new and still finding its place. Leaders aren’t sure where to fit innovation into the organization, and creating a dedicated position is a luxury available only to larger organizations with more resources. In Pittsburgh’s case, embedding innovation into the CIO role is the difference between a tech leader who runs a help desk and one who runs a help desk and monitors the data analytics behind it so he or she can find ways to improve it.

“I think the difference between Pittsburgh and others is that my role is embedded in city code,” Lam said. “So while others may have a new mayor, a new agenda, a new initiative, and there might no longer be a chief innovation officer for the next mayor, the role of innovation and performance will continue here without me. If you think about innovation, it takes a lot of time. It’s not just something you can implement in six months. How do you sustain innovation? How do you create that cultural change? Those are things that really require some longevity and endurance.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.