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CXO

What can we learn from Apple?

Challenging long-held assumptions and having the intestinal fortitude to carry the ball across the goal line regardless of how tough it actually is separates the outstanding IT leader from the rest.

Challenging long-held assumptions and having the intestinal fortitude to carry the ball across the goal line regardless of how tough it actually is separates the outstanding IT leader from the rest.

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A record quarter for Apple sent AAPL soaring in after hours trading yesterday. Ever since Steve Jobs returned to Apple, new innovations and record sales have followed. Why? How has Mr. Jobs turned things around at Apple and how can IT leaders learn from the example?

The answer is solution orientation. We hear that buzzword in all facets of corporate life and although I understand it, I always try to find examples to explain it to others. Solution orientation in IT is looking beyond just a single technology. Instead, it focuses on delivering a valuable experience for the end user.

The big mobile phone companies came out with a mobile phone that allowed users to listen to MP3 files on their phone. Earlier, various MP3 players hit the market, all with limited success. The challenge was that there was no easy way to get MP3 files on these devices. The early days of Napster when all the illegal file sharing was going on, you could never count on the quality of the download. Some songs were cut short and bit rates on others were poor. Really, it was a high-end web-based file server with search capabilities and a few other neat features, but the experience was somewhat cludgey. And aside from the fact that it was illegal, sometimes you could find the songs that you wanted if you knew exactly what you were looking for.

CDs were still pretty expensive and you had to buy the whole album, even though you liked only a couple of songs. CD sales were pretty steady and the sales process had not changed for decades.

Mobile phones were developed with a focus on service contracts. Give slightly innovative features and make them as cheaply as possible. The manufacturers were at the mercy of the mobile service providers, at least in the US. This caused innovation to eek along instead of making leaps.

All of these businesses had their set ways—processes that worked for the markets they were in. These companies were really not focused on what the customer actually wanted. Surveys, sales figures, marketing plans all focused on edging out the competition.

Apple saw what customers wanted. They wanted to listen to the music they liked. They wanted to get their music in a way that would not require a degree in computer science (or force them to ask their 14-year-old to get it for them). Simple. But… you had these huge companies that you had to convince to change their ways. That was probably the most difficult part of the iPod, iPhone and iTunes scenario. To the music companies, you will make more money this way. To the mobile service providers, the device actually matters. Stop letting the tail wag the dog.

Sure, Apple could have put out an iPod without iTunes and without negotiating with these stalwarts of industry. But it would have failed. Apple was a hardware company after all. What did it know about telecommunications and music? The technology was the easy part. Pulling together a solution that the customers actually wanted was the tough part.

As with all technology implementations, the tough part is not necessarily the initial technology. The services and business processes that are typically not part of IT's purview or area of expertise are usually what makes or breaks a successful technology implementation. Challenging long-held assumptions and having the intestinal fortitude to carry the ball across the goal line regardless of how tough it actually is separates the outstanding IT leader from the rest.

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