IT operational excellence may have gotten you into the game, but it might not be enough to keep you there. Stay on top of the rising stakes so you don't get kicked off the table.
If you've ever spent time in a casino, you're probably aware of the concept of "table stakes," the minimum bet required to enter a game, usually poker. Over time, the table stake rises with general inflation, and table stakes will usually go higher or lower depending on the quality of the casino. Enter the VIP room at a fancy casino, and there are likely several zeros after the table stake, while a rundown joint on the seedy side of town is probably far lower.
Like differing table stakes, businesses and markets all have different expectations for technology. It's a given at a manufacturing company that the CIO has a firm grasp of ERP systems, but perhaps the stakes are lower when it comes to marketing automation and CRM software. While this is fairly obvious, one of the dangers I've noticed in IT leaders is not observing how table stakes are increasing around them, while they maintain the status quo in their own organization.
Heathcare.gov versus Amazon.com
If you live in the US, you're likely aware of the troubled rollout of a new national healthcare system. The centerpiece of the new system was to be an online exchange, Healthcare.gov, where citizens could easily compare and buy health insurance.
The site launch was a textbook failure, replete with crashes, failed transactions, and confused and frustrated users. Months after the rollout, a "tech surge" launched by the Obama administration was supposed to have fixed many of the problems, and the talking heads proudly hailed that Healthcare.gov was able to handle nearly 50,000 site visitors a day, after tens of millions of dollars of emergency spending.
While 50,000 visitors might have been laudable a decade ago, the average CIO likely sees transactional volumes like this in even midsize companies. Furthermore, the announcement touting the 50,000 visitors figure coincided with the "Black Friday" shopping rush, when Amazon.com casually mentioned setting a new record of processing in excess of 300 transactions per second, surpassing Healthcare.gov by a factor of 10 in only one hour — and making the government's announcement akin to showing up at the fanciest Las Vegas casino and proudly dropping a worn and tattered one dollar bill at the high-limit, VIP table.
Take a walkabout
Industry journals and the IT press are ways of staying abreast of rising table stakes; however, it's also worth getting outside your own IT organization. As consumer technology invades most organizations, observe how the Googles and Apples that are providing these devices are changing end-user expectations. Join a local IT leadership group and speak with IT leaders outside your own industry. While a consumer products company will obviously have different table stakes around some technologies than a commodity B2B supplier, speaking with organizations at the leading edge of their respective technical disciplines will give you a taste of what's likely headed your way in a few years.
This is also a good area for help from research organizations and consulting groups, many of which have massive R&D budgets and staffs of what amounts to futurists who ponder where IT will be in the decades to come. These types of organizations can also identify where you're "under betting," allowing you to launch corrective action before you're thrown off the metaphorical table.
Raise the game
As you become attuned to changing table stakes both within and outside your industry, you may eventually be presented with an opportunity to raise them yourself. Just as Amazon fundamentally changed the expectations for high-volume ecommerce, you may be able to develop a proprietary technology or innovative method for deploying existing IT tools. Even using your broad cross-industry knowledge might allow your organization to "borrow" a trend from another industry and deploy it before it even appears on your competitors' radar.
Whether you change the game or not, at least develop an awareness of the changing IT table stakes, lest you find yourself touting statistics that might impress someone from 2002 but won't even get you in the game today.