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Why Corporate IT Fails when Competing with Consumer Tech … and How to Change the Game


There is a fundamental difference in the level of innovation and design for internal "enterprise" technologists vs. external product developers. Internal teams are rewarded for getting work completed, while external folks win when their work is actually put to use. What are some ways to change that dynamic, and improve the work of internal teams?

I’ve been working with internal developers over the past few weeks, experimenting with a treemap / heatmap-style visualization that is quite interesting / insightful when loaded up with data, but very tough to configure and manipulate. We are also struggling with a presentation layer (surrounding this data control) that doesn’t adapt to the size of your browser screen, or behave well when placed inside a frame set or table.

I suspect our primary challenge – typical thinking for most corporate IT departments – is that we only work with the tool we know. The only way to display information in a browser from XYZ’s data warehouse is to use their particular Web portal platform. We need to switch focus; let the data warehouse provide beautifully aggregated and accessible data, but go elsewhere for the presentation layer.

Corporate IT needs to develop a sense of adventure, a thirst for new and different ways of doing the same thing, and a curiosity about different presentation architectures (ie. there’s more than one way to skin a cat). Manufacture some spare time, and get down to some serious “play”, with CSS, HTML, and SharePoint (as previously noted, our target intranet platform); learn all you can about the level of control you have. Note that you probably have more flexibility than you think … but now we’re playing with JavaScript, VBScript, or any number of client-side technologies.

Unfortunately, we all seem to get to the same creativity-killing question: “how do I charge my time?” Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the timesheets and reasonable chargeback systems, quantifying IT alignment with the business – but therein lies the subtle yet significant difference with “the IT guys” and the iPhone / iPod / Kindle / Nintendo / Best Buy expectations of our business partners.

Rewarding Different Behaviors

Corporate IT is measured by and rewarded for projects – specifically, getting things done. In most organizations, that’s where it ends; IT is usually not rewarded based on the ongoing use of the project deliverables; in fact, ongoing support (“maintenance”) is expected … a cost of doing business … overhead … part of baseline costs … and, in a manner of speaking: free (no premium is paid).

It’s the exact opposite on the Internet and consumer IT; you are expected to build the stuff for free, and just give it away. You will get your rewards when people come to your website, click on your ads, buy your products, become sales leads. You are rewarded after the build is complete – but (if you are good), you are rewarded over and over again.

  • Corporate IT – metrics for success stop when the project is complete
  • Consumer IT – metrics for success start when the development work is done

This also helps explain why Consumer IT delivers “stuff” that people like, that is intuitive, easy to use, and just works. Witness the apple iStore – developers earn cash only when they sell their apps, long after the build is complete. But it’s not as simple as that – note that even though there are a huge number of apps out there, less than 5% are big successes (>100,000 users). Competition and market dynamics drive quality and innovative, creativity is rewarded when an app rises above the fray. Check out the disturbing collection in this screen shot; how many different ways can you write the same, silly, popgun program?

You’d be amazed – yet five minutes of playing with each of these shooters, and you start to see the subtle variations and evolving methods that lead to “winning” applications that get the most return visits (and the most paid users [= pr0fit]).

Hope for Corporate IT – the Anti-PMO

The iGun story tells us about the darwinian action that comes with large amounts of repetition, duplication, and failure. Success can be quantified by your failures – how many failed experiments have you thrown out there, just to see what sticks? On the internet, preferably a lot – because that’s how you learn what works, and how to make the “really cool stuff”.

Corporate IT might stand a chance in an environment where experimentation and failure is encouraged (but not necessarily rewarded – we need to learn from our mistakes). In essence, we need to build an anti-PMO and give permission for folks to do stuff that has no apparent value.

What will it take for you to facilitate a more creative environment? For more ideas on establishing an innovation environment, check out this old post

6 January, 2010

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Excellent observations. In my experience corporate IT functions exactly the opposite of consumer application development. Functional business units will typically go to IT with a shortcoming, e.g., “my exisiting systems won’t allow me to do xyz, or won’t allow me to do xyz in the neccesary timeframe…” SO then corporate IT will dispatch a BA, the BA will meet with the functional BU, they’ll survey other BU’s to assess whether it’s a local or pervasive issue, they’ll state the problem, research appropriate solutions, come up with a defined set of alternatives to remediate the issue, if the proposed solution is a COTS software package select the vendor, implement the solution, and as you said post-mortem the solution after delivery. If corporate IT in this scenario were to function like consumer IT, different constituents within the IT organization would develop or present solutions, and the BU’s would choose the “winning” solution(s) and the “winner(s)” would be rewarded accordingly. With what I’ve seen evolve with the consumerization of business, for example the use of consumer mobile devices in business, this 180 degree opposite approach may evenutally become more commonplace.

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