IT lessons from Dubai

While Dubai may not be everyone's cup of tea, its bold expansion, unending self-promotion, and use of a wide variety of internal and external expertise are worthwhile traits to emulate for IT leaders.

I'm writing this week's column from the amazing city of Dubai. If nothing else, Dubai has done an excellent job of marketing itself, and you've likely heard of the grand buildings, amazing public works, and ostentatious wealth of what was once an anonymous desert backwater. After reading a bit about the city's history, and spending a few days walking the streets and staring at the various building achievements, I'm struck with several lessons applicable to IT leaders.

Be bold

While one might describe Dubai with a range of emotions from awed reverence to scornful disdain, it's almost universally agreed that Dubai has been bold in its transition to globally recognized city, all in the matter of a single generation (Dubai only installed running water, electricity, and telephone service in the last 60 years). Projects from the immense port to the world's tallest building were risky gambits that usually paid off. When they did succeed, Dubai touted its achievements endlessly to the world.

There's obviously a fine line between being a bold visionary and a washed-up gambler, but the alternative of remaining stagnant poses just as much risk to aspiring IT leaders as it does a city with global aspirations. Merely providing commodity infrastructure services, and avoiding new technologies or potentially risky projects, turns IT into a commodity faced with downward cost pressure or outright outsourcing. With most companies relying deeply on IT, bold innovation can provide competitive advantage and positive recognition.

Sing your praises

While some of Dubai's projects seem unbelievably impractical (indoor skiing in the desert, anyone?), they generate press that Dubai unendingly exploits to put the city on the global map. Even before the multi-million dollar construction projects, Dubai would engage in low-cost exploits like arranging the world's largest gathering of men named "Mohammad" in a low-budget stunt to gather global press.

While no one is suggesting parlor tricks to increase the profile of your IT department, most IT departments do a bad job of sharing their successes. While it may seem selfish or irrelevant, singing your praises not only creates a positive impression of internal IT, but shares successes with other business units that might be able to benefit from a similar system or process.

Go "global" for expertise

Dubai is an incredibly international city. This evening I ate dinner in a Moroccan restaurant, with a couple speaking Mandarin at the next table, an Arab family nearby, an Indian couple, and a mishmash of Europeans and other nationalities. While critics have questioned whether Dubai is taking advantage of low-cost labor, foreigners occupy jobs on each end of the economic spectrum. Dubai even tolerates behavior and practices outside the predominant local religion and customs.

Going "global" need not mean gathering employees from around the world, but rather soliciting knowledge and expertise from a wide variety of sources. These sources might range from non-IT employees within the company to consultations with fellow IT leaders in non-competitive companies. Try to abandon your usual IT "orthodoxy" in order to gather new ideas and practices. Similarly, consider outside expertise ranging from tradition implementation experts to technology strategy help.

While Dubai may not be everyone's cup of tea, its bold expansion, unending self-promotion, and use of a wide variety of internal and external expertise are worthwhile traits to emulate for IT leaders.

About Patrick Gray

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 ...

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