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iPad: IT gets it

In the last article on the share of PCs highlighting the unwillingness of market analysts to categorize the disruptive iPad as a PC I imply that Gartner does not “get it”.

This is partly willful and partly instinctive. The willful ignorance is due to a belief that their customers (IT managers mostly) do not want to hear about the iPad as a viable technology. Certainly there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the iPad is unworthy of consideration as a business tool.

However, there is also increasing evidence that IT does in fact get it. I have met several senior IT managers who are whispering that the iPad will change everything. For us to decide which way the wind blows, we need to think harder about the process by which technology gets adopted in large IT organizations. Understanding how the technology is hired by IT managers to improve their career prospects unveils who wins and who loses in IT.

The main hypothesis I put forward is that IT is an example of “rule of man” not “rule of law”. The idea that law or “standards” (as doctrine is known by the jargon,) defines the products in use is a conventional myth. Standards change and they change quite dramatically based on who’s in charge. The “standard” during the 70’s was the Mainframe, the “standard” in the 80’s was the DOS PC and the “standard” in the 90’s was client-server and in the 2000’s it was the web. Each new standard was a violation of the previous standard. So how did this change happen?

Each evolution of technology standards affects the career of the IT manager. The adoption of technology is the primary driver for advancement in the profession. In most cases the technology being adopted is sustaining. In rare cases it’s disruptive and can cause unforeseen re-distribution of IT power (and wealth).

As IT is a cost center, naturally, organizational behavior (or, in the vernacular “politics”) dominates the decision process. Senior managers look at each technology and ask: how can this help me achieve my career goals? Let’s try this exercise with various innovations that have come along in the last few years.

  1. The Web in 1998. As IP based networking was catching on, the new technology offered a new way to tie existing assets together. It was also a completely new communication channel with customers. This was a great opportunity to increase IT consumption. It would lead to more work, more budget, more visibility and even a strong link between the profit centers of the company and the IT world. The web was an opportunity. It led to a firestorm of adoption.
  2. OSX in 2004. As Windows PCs were widespread and, given the support infrastructure behind them, worked well enough, an IT manager would look at a Mac and see no opportunity to increase their value add. They could not offer new software tools with it, and the old tools would probably not work without debugging. They could not move a Mac to new use cases and could not increase headcount to support it. The Mac was not a career opportunity.
  3. The iPad in 2010. As an IT manager looks at the iPad (and smartphones in general), he sees a similar opportunity to the Web ten years ago. The company users love their devices. Top executive love their devices. They see consumerization happening and there is no denying the explosive growth. There are challenges with integration but these devices are not a direct threat. The iPad is an opportunity to migrate to a completely new form factor and increase IT consumption.

What this means politically is that the manager who figures out a way to roll out mobility in the organization will get the same uplift in his career as his predecessors did when they brought in disruptive waves. Those periods have become the stuff of lore and legend. Every IT manager with ambition is looking to create and ride a new wave. If the person is a mid-level manager, they will scramble to be the champion of the new technology and become a rising star. If the person is a high-level manager, they will see it as a way to protect their empire by co-option. Jostling for a vehicle to bring in the technology will begin. These vehicles are typically vendor relationships. Small vendors (example) have a better chance as the traditional vendors (for example SAP) and integrators are not quick enough with product development and don’t have the products to sell.

This IT manager’s job-to-be-done analysis is crucial to understanding the adoption of IT technology.  Sustaining IT products do not sell themselves even if they are superior. Conversely, new products cannot be kept out of an organization even if they violate standards. What matters is whether they help the decision maker to achieve personal goals.

My own intuition, having worked in such an organization (albeit briefly), and after a few conversations, is that the iPad and the mobile devices it represents is going to influence a generation of IT spending.

Even though Gartner doesn’t, IT goes get it.