Liberate the People
Steve Jobs made a comment recently at E3 about the fact that Apple builds products for consumers and not the enterprise.
“The Enterprise is not a market we feel comfortable to pursue, for a very simple reason: Consumers decide for themselves what technology they use, and vote for their through buying it, or not. That is why we pursue the consumer market. Users in companies do not have that choice. I.T. departments decide for them what they can and cannot use. These decisions are not always the best decisions, because I.T. departments are... confused.”
This made me think of an analogy I covered in an earlier blog entry. It drew a parallel between the way we treat knowledge workers, and the way we treat trades people and other Professionals.
A trades person depends on the quality of the tools for their trade. When one hires a plumber or electrician for work, we don’t prescribe to the person which tools he or she should use. We trust them as professionals with the knowledge of their trade, and with the skill to use the tools required for the job. We expect them to come with the best tools and knowledge, so that we get the best outcome for the money we pay.
However, when we engage or employ a knowledge worker, we strip them from their tools the moment they step into the office, and we provide them with the tools the internal I.T. department considers “fit for purpose”. This is similar to telling the plumber to leave his tools on his truck, and to use what we think is appropriate, because it is more “secure”, more “efficient”, “cheaper”, or whatever other “good” reason we can come up with as I.T. department to exert control.
If we do that to a trade professional we will get one of two responses: They will either turnaround and walk away, or increase their price tenfold. They will make us pay for their troubles of using something with which they may not be familiar, or prefer. We curtail their ability by being prescriptive on something that we are probably not qualified to prescribe in the first instance.
Why is this happening? Why do we allow our I.T. departments and I.T. executives to neuter hired talent. Why do we limit the effectiveness of our knowledge workforce by limiting their ability to bring to bear whatever tool it is they use to get their job done, in the best way they know how? What makes us, as I.T. departments the “experts” in deciding how technology should or could server the needs of our business stakeholders?
Because, I believe our I.T. departments have lost their way. Instead of helping facilitate business outcomes, they consider themselves as the guardians. They confuse their role as support and enabler and instead act like gatekeeper and controller. This may have been a justifiable role when technology was complex, expensive and outside the realm of most office workers. However, times have changed. Information Technology is now truly in the hands of everyone. School children pack more processing power and information in their smartphones than some I.T. departments are prepared to provide for day-to-day work at the office.
Furthermore, the I.T. department holds the perspective that it is responsible to protect business from technology and from themselves. When it comes to I.T. tools, “I.T. knows best”. I.T. has morphed from a niche function of technology experts to an “all knowing” group of “supposed” business experts, that considers it a right to be prescriptive, not only of technology or information, but business process and strategy as well. Instead of being accommodating and supportive, the function battles a “laggard” user base that just “doesn’t get it”, when they refer to their business stakeholders.
There are more unintended consequences of this assumed, and in some cases delegated assignment. The I.T. department erects a walled garden that is mystified in cloak of complexity, frameworks, acronyms, secret handshakes and gobbledygook. The rest of the organization is locked out and has to work with what they get.
There is another side to this story. The I.T. department is not the only villain, and cannot take all the blame for trying to safeguard the company from the technology quagmire and vendor onslaught.
For a long time, I.T. was (and probably still is) indeed complex and outside the grasp of most people. It was something that needed to be entrusted to those with the expertise to tame the electronic information processing monster. They are the people in the downtown computer room. These were the people in charge of selecting and protecting the enterprise’s information and technology interests.
The I.T. department was the only expert, and it dealt with the company’s technology needs, on behalf of the company. Business Stakeholders entrusted it to them. In some cases this trust bordered on abdicating of responsibility for their company’s supporting information and technology. I.T. relished the opportunity and importance this heightened responsibility brought. Justifiable, some I.T. departments are still operating from this mis-perspective
Entrusting such an important part of a company’s success to a department made the I.T. department an easy target. If someone else is doing it, then it is very easy to criticize and complain. Having delegated and abdicated responsibility for the company’s I.T. made it easy for other company executives to escape the accountability of the demands they placed on their I.T. department.
The I.T. department very quickly found itself in a race that cannot be won. It found itself in a position to satisfy ever changing business expectations, against an increasing pace of technology innovation, and at the same time being under-appreciated for doing so. Their best has just not been good enough, lately.
Billy Connolly explained it well in one of his rants: “I want this. I want that. I want now. I want it yesterday. And, I want f*&^&% more tomorrow. And it is all going to change, so f*&^%! stay awake!”
This rant personifies the day to which most CIO’s wake up every day, around the globe. On the one side is the technology beast with unwieldy vendors, temperamental platforms and treacherous technology. It is something that more and more defies management and control. The beast is becoming uncontrollable, and the speed of innovation staggering. On the other side you have the demanding business user that abdicated involvement and yet somehow is never satisfied with the outcome. The same users never seem to take accountability for the impact of their expectations on their company’s I.T. department.
How should one react to these challenges?
For a while the I.T. department tried to control the environment. However, this task is becoming more and more desperate with the proliferation of gadgets and information inside and outside the organization. When consumers are now choosing their technology, and their gadgetry are becoming more sophisticated than the I.T. department can offer, then it is clear the writing is on the wall for corporate I.T.. While the I.T. department is clamping down, standardizing and trying to control, they unknowingly participate in the elimination and demise of the very essence of value creation in information and technology. They limit the opportunity for knowledge workers to truly create value.
Set them Free
For information, and the technology that supports it, has to be shared to become valuable. The most recent advances in social media and online collaboration services are proving the point. By sharing, the value creation process is accelerated. By enabling and allowing individuals to collaborate, the value creation process is improved. Companies that doesn’t set out to control, but encourages collaboration and cooperation internal and externally to the office are seeing rapid growth and recognition.
For a while businesses have been clear on the benefits of sharing information. When supply-chain information is shared it helps to lower inventory and provides more flexibility. The company, and more and more the industry’s technology for sharing information facilitates this value.
The same benefits come through where consumer buying behaviours are shared responsibly. Fred H. Cate Michael E. Staten summarized it as follows:
- It allows businesses to ascertain customer needs accurately and meet those needs rapidly and efficiently.
- It permits consumers to be informed rapidly and at low cost of those opportunities in which they are most likely to be interested.
- It promotes competition by facilitating the entry of new competitors into established markets, reduces the advantage that large, incumbent firms have over smaller startups and encourages the creation of businesses specialized in satisfying specific consumer needs.
- It expands consumer access to a wide range of affordable services and products, and enhances customer convenience and services.
- It improves efficiency and significantly reduces the cost of many products and services.
- It facilitates the detection and prevention of fraud and other crimes.
The I.T. industry has numerous examples of open source collaborations that have and are creating products and services for the benefit of larger eco-systems. We have computer operating systems, database technologies, mobile computing technologies, online references, public databases, forums, help forums and you name it, where people collaborate, volunteer information, share, and consume technology. Being proprietary, or exclusive is a sure path to the grave in the current information technology landscape.
Many of today’s corporate technology deployed, somehow had their roots in people sharing something freely to create value in the first instance. The I.T. department cannot, and should not stand in the way of this evolution, even internal to the company. The industry, like Apple Inc. and Google are equipping private individuals with ever powerful devices and solutions to generate, consume and share information. And, the corporate I.T. department cannot, and must not stand in the way of this, but rather encouraging more technology consumption and more sharing.
“How will you support all the stuff if you allow users to bring their own technology to work?” asked one prominent CEO. “What about security?” asks another.
Maybe it is time that we, as corporate I.T. executives re-evaluate our role and perspective of what it means to “support” or provide “security”. When our assumptions are founded on control, standardization and scaremongering, then we are losing the plot as I.T. incumbents. When we believe that we need to do it all company internal, and cannot trust in vendor supplied services, cloud based or otherwise, then we have delusions of grandeur about our own abilities. When we curtail the proficiency of knowledge workers by limiting their access to technology and information, we are overstepping our mandate.
We need to find new paradigms for “support”, “supply”, and keeping things “secure”. We need to innovate a world where technology and information inside the company indeed supports abundance, collaboration, and access control to tools and solutions doesn’t stifle innovation. We should also support access to technology and information outside the company when it offers potential for even greater success.
I am not advocating any irresponsible actions that may jeopardize a company’s intellectual property, or the fiduciary responsibility it has with relation to information entrusted to them by their customers. The company must still do the right thing with its information and for its customers. However, when it gets to devices and solutions there are more opportunity to do well by allowing a proliferation, than there is by curtailing and prohibiting access and use of a knowledge worker’s preferred tool or platform of choice.
When the role of corporate I.T. it is founded on consumption, proliferation, encouragement, adoption and sharing then we will do better in meeting the needs of the corporate I.T. user. Then, the I.T. department will start thinking of their users as consumers, in the same manner as Steve Jobs think of his customers. These are the consumers that not only vote for the next iPhone, but will also vote for the next I.T. leader for their company.
A 2009 survey from Gartner discovered that more than 40 percent of companies support employee-owned laptops. And those firms expect the number of staffers allowed to use their own notebooks for work to hit 14 percent this year from 10 percent last year.
Among the more than five hundred I.T. managers that Gartner questioned in the U.S., Germany, and the U.K., 48 percent still prohibit the use of personal PCs as primary work computers. But 43 percent now allow and address such use with company policies. The reason why is simple: cost savings and higher efficiencies. It is argued that while companies are hurting by the economic downturn, I.T. managers in large organizations have been eyeing a variety of ways to cut costs, including the use of employee-owned PC’s. Forward thinking businesses are also recognizing the additional value they get from allowing their knowledge workers to choose and use their preferred information technology.
By country, 60 percent of German firms surveyed let employees use their own personal PC’s as work computers, while only 30 percent of those in the U.S. and U.K. allow their use. And with an ongoing need to keep the budget slim, and the workers efficient and able, these companies see an increase in employee-owned PC’s over the next 12 to 18 months. I.T. managers in the U.S. expect the largest increase at a whopping 60 percent. Those in Germany predict a 40 percent jump, while managers in the U.K. are eyeing a more modest 15 percent rise.
If corporate I.T. can make useful and great products accessible, or encourage the adoption of new “consumer” lead and like corporate supported and introduced technology to allow value creation for the company, then we have success in empowering our knowledge workers. Then, the I.T. department has succeeded in redefining its role in a new era where abundance is no longer a threat, but an opportunity.
Consumer technology is, and has been outpacing I.T. department supplied solutions. The I.T. departments that recognize this phenomenon and challenges their traditional perspectives of command and control, will succeed in equipping their stakeholders much more effectively.
Companies and their I.T. departments still need to remain diligent and responsible with the corporate and customer information. However, in doing so recognize that, sharing information, and making it accessible to the right parties at the right time is the only way that business value can and is derived from it. The challenge will be to make it accessible, allow collaboration and ensure that it is done with a positive outcome. That will remain the company’s accountability as a whole, and cannot be entrusted to the I.T. department anymore.
Corporate executives are taking ownership of their own gadgets. Similarly, they must take an interest in, and take back abdicated accountability for their information and their tools, for the sake of good business.
Recognizing that the I.T. department has the opportunity to truly inspire through technology and information sharing is the great chance we have as incumbents in a new era where tools are everywhere. Information is everywhere, and the only limitation is our creativity and drive towards a technology and information abundant business innovative future.
I personally welcome the opportunity.
Hendrik van Wyk