What IT can learn from Steve Jobs

Next-gen IT leaders beware: When it comes to winning converts, playing it safe isn't safe at all

Much has been written about Steve Jobs's impact on the tech industry, as well as his visionary role as a business leader. But if you're looking to move your IT organization forward, what you need to learn from Steve Jobs boils down to one thing: Focus on upside potential, not downside risk.

One minute comparing the iPad to the Motorola Xoom is all you need to accept this wisdom. Here's the difference: The iPad was a new type of gadget with no proven market and no clear selling proposition beyond its overall coolness and undefinable potential. Along with it came the Apple-curated App Store and the hope that independent developers would show up to stock its shelves. Risky.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Get Bob Lewis's continuing IT management wisdom in his Advice Line blog and newsletter. | Bob Lewis outlines the IT survival guide for uncertain times. ]

The Xoom was (and is) a copycat device, a late arrival that wasn't quite as good, but just as expensive and with no unique feature. Motorola (and, to be fair, every other purveyor of Android tablets) played it safe, which is, in the long run, the least safe way to run a business, because really, what do their tablets offer that anyone might want, other than being not an iPad?

When you're leading an IT organization, safe is just as risky.

IT's unique selling proposition

The most basic challenge of any business strategy is to define a unique selling proposition. This is not a complicated concept; in fact, the phrase is self-explanatory: Businesses must explain what only their products and services provide ... what you can't get anywhere else.

Even though running IT as a business is a bad idea, IT organizations must consider their unique selling proposition in relation to the enterprise as a whole. After all, we are in a battle with the IT outsourcing industry for executive hearts and minds. And our opponents have entire sales and marketing departments devoted to creating unique selling propositions, which, if successful, will put us all back on the IT job market -- with the possible exception of the CIO, whose job will subsequently change to contract administrator.

What does internal IT have to offer against this threat? Financially, it doesn't have to turn a profit, giving it an automatic cost advantage, which outsourcers are masters at countering through the use of lease/buy-back arrangements and other financial games. Don't try to win on the financials.

Internal IT's competitive edge over an outsourcer is its ability to form deep relationships with every other part of the business. IT organizations that focus on these relationships -- not just in the executive suite, but at all levels of interaction -- position themselves uniquely to be an asset to the business, while at the same time satisfying the "requirements of enlightened self-interest" by making their services harder to hand over to an outsourcer, which would, after all, limit delivery to its contractual obligations.

Which is why IT should say yes to iPhones and other forms of consumer tech.

Why playing it safe can wreck relationships

Executives, middle managers, front-line supervisors, and staff-level employees are embracing technology in every facet of their lives. And when they express interest in bringing their preferred devices to work, playing it safe is a poor way to run IT.

Why? Because playing it safe makes IT's job easier at everyone else's expense, and this is a poor approach to building relationships.

Not that relationship building justifies recklessness as an alternative. But as it turns out, embracing "Bring Your Own Tech" (BYOT) isn't at all reckless.

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