In an ongoing shift, most information technology innovation has moved from the large enterprise vendors, who offer their wares to Fortune 500 companies, to consumer technology. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the smartphone. The first smartphone "hit" was the BlackBerry, which became a ubiquitous corporate tool and sign of ones status on the corporate ladder. Now, the latest smartphone innovations come from companies like Apple, HTC, and Google, and are targeted at consumers first, with enterprises adopting them late in the game. For all but the most complex technologies, the source of innovation has shifted from companies like IBM to the wares on display at the local big-box electronics store. Coping with this shift will be a major challenge for IT leaders.
Relocating the innovation pulse
Keeping track of technology innovations used to be relatively easy. A handful of enterprise IT magazines kept you appraised of the latest developments, and if you had even a modest IT budget, vendors were more than happy to stop by to shill their latest and greatest. While these big vendors still "own" large-scale technologies like storage, networking, and mainframe/supercomputers, your teenage niece is likely more versed in the latest social network, smartphone platform, or content delivery mechanism. Frankly, I've met more than a few executives who trust their son or daughter more than their CIO on informing them about emerging technologies.
Combating the risk of falling behind on new consumer-driven technologies need not be all-consuming or overly painful. Shift some of your reading from the increasingly consolidating enterprise IT press to a consumer-focused blog or two. I personally like engadget.com. While there's an overabundance of "noise," merely scanning the headlines gives you an idea of consumer trends, whether it's a shift in mobile operating system preference among consumers or an emerging new category of devices.
Similarly, look for members of your staff who have a deep interest in technology. Usually it's the person with a new mobile phone every six months, or the one taking meeting notes on a tablet. Engage some of these people in a two-way mentoring relationship; they keep you apprised of new technology, and you provide career guidance.
But it's not "enterprise grade"!
A big concern around consumer technology in the enterprise is that it's lacking necessary features and functionality, ranging from robust and easily-maintainable hardware designs to enhanced security functionality. While this is certainly the case, we tend to overestimate the need for an "enterprise grade" solution to every problem, and fail to consider the cost tradeoff that comes with consumer-grade technology.
I read of ESPN using iPads and Xbox video game consoles to replace a custom "enterprise grade" solution that cost approximately 15x 15 times more, and the consumer product was actually more functional and preferred by users. While there are certainly solutions that call for enterprise-level functionality, merely dismissing consumer technology without considering the cost savings, improved ease of use, and rapid deployment times is shortsighted.
At the end of the day, we do ourselves a disservice by considering consumer technology as a unique and distinct class of products, rather than yet another tool for our enterprise toolbox. Rather than regarding your local electronics store as a source of substandard products that users are inappropriately trying to use at work, look at it as one more source for solving your technology problems.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.