Once upon a time, the halls of a modern corporation were where you found the latest and greatest technologies. I can remember my father bringing home an early "portable" computer, a device that weighed as much as a small child, and sported what must have been a 10" CRT monitor, beaming green text and cancerous rays into my delighted eyes. For many people past their university years, their first exposure to the Internet came with a mysterious "@" sign appearing in their corporate electronic mail address, and eventually a strange icon that opened something called "Netscape" on their desktop.
While it might be interesting to take a trip down IT memory lane, the years of corporations driving technology have come to a close. One only needs to looks at former corporate stalwarts like Dell to see where they are placing their emphasis. Their corporate line of computers has become an endless slog of dull grey slabs, while its consumer line gets the newest processors and technology, and a fancy design esthetic months before. Whereas notebooks, smart phones, and tablet computers hit the enterprise first, the next generation of iPads, netbooks, Xboxes and cloud applications are landing with consumers months, and sometimes years, before the associated innovations hit the enterprise.
Rather than lamenting the fact that the enterprise is no longer ground zero for the latest innovation, CIOs should be allocating some portion of their budgets and "mindshare" toward investigating consumer technology and looking for ways to apply it in the enterprise. Lockheed coined the term "skunk works" to represent a team working on cutting edge projects that kept the company one step ahead of the competition, even if the projects did not have an immediate application. The skunk works group spawned what would evolve into stealth aircraft technology, and created the fastest aircraft ever to take to the skies.
ESPN was recently profiled by one of the gadget websites, and its skunk works equivalent had used Xboxes and iPads in the broadcast environment, finding pragmatic and immediately applicable solutions to a business problem with commodity consumer hardware and software for thousands less. Even NASA is creating computing clusters using Sony's PS3 gaming console. I am not suggesting abandoning your Cisco firewall to a $50 consumer-grade special from the local big box store; I'm suggesting you remove the marketing-induced blinders of "enterprise-grade" when looking at the available technical solutions to a problem.
Not only can technologies be sourced more cheaply in the consumer space, but they also are often months ahead of what your favorite vendor will sell you at a 400% markup. Building the skunk works mentality into your teams can also be a great way to invigorate staff while developing soft skills. Why not buy a couple of tablet devices and create a competition to prototype and present the most relevant application to your company, allowing the winner to keep the device? The cost is laughably small, and you just might end up with something like the extremely basic combination of an iPad and remote desktop software that allowed ESPN anchors to "doodle" over a sports cast for thousands of dollars less than the closest "enterprise" solution, not to mention the halo of "cool" that the iPad adds to any application.
In addition to the financial benefits, the fact of the matter is that your consumers and employees are using these devices. Just as the CEO expects his or her CFO to have an operating knowledge of the latest financial regulations or pending legislation, your CEO likely expects you to speak broadly about what is happening in the consumer space, and how it might affect your company's markets, products or services. If the best you can do is recite the latest vendor bromides when the CEO's son or daughter has been telling him how Android might change his business, you risk not only saving the company some money, but your job as well.
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.