My previous post on America’s declining education rankings in the world got me thinking more about innovation – what it really means and how to achieve it.

I think we tend to view innovation in IT as the invention of new technologies or “things.” Like IBM’s recent predictions on “Five Innovations that Will Change the World in Five Years,” including batteries that breathe air, personalized commuter routes and cities running on waste heat from data centers.

And these are certainly valid – and exciting – developments. But to me, innovation is more than invention – it can be a new application or re-application of an existing technology or concept. For businesses, it’s really about a new way of thinking that extends from the product itself all the way through to the sales and marketing strategy, customer acquisition and the overall business model.

And, it’s not just about hiring a bunch of smart people and locking them in a room. One thing that I’ve seen throughout my career is the vital nature of leadership. Successful companies build a strong “culture of innovation” that not only fosters creativity, passion and freedom of process but that incents it as well.

First and foremost though, the key component of successful and meaningful innovation is timeless. Those at the forefront of innovation in IT are and always have been customer-driven.

Consider Apple over the last ten years – transforming the audio player with the iPod and now paving the way to the tablet era with simplicity and ease-of-use innovations that have become signatures of their brand. Or, the transformational shift to Internet video – with new innovations playing out weekly in both the consumer and enterprise markets.

Successful innovation in IT delivers new ideas and products that are more than novelties – that make the way we play more fun and the way we work more productive and efficient.
What innovations made the most impact on your personal and work life over the last decade? What types of innovations do you hope to see in 2011 and beyond?