- by Paul Murphy -
Several weeks ago we were visiting my mother in law in Victoria, B.C. just across the strait from Port Angeles and close enough to Seattle to share some of its rain. She's proud of her Scottish heritage and rejoices in her ancestral stereotype when it comes to parting with a nickel. I was surprised, therefore, to hear that she's switched her grocery shopping to a chain rejoicing in the name of "Thifty's", which is anything but bargain basement.
For example the prime rib roast they sold her for our celebratory dinner cost $79.86 and even in Canabucks that's almost twice the rate I pay Parkland Packers for similar fine Alberta beef. I expected her to balk at the price, but she didn't; instead she paid with a smile and said she'd get a turkey from them for Thanksgiving.
So why does she like the store and pay prices like that? Because Thrifty's focuses on service and quality to the exclusion of just about everything else. Go for off the shelf commodity products and their prices are competitive, but ask for the first three ribs of a prime rib roast cut from the small end, and they practically assign a personal butcher. He listened carefully to understand what she wanted, cut it exactly right, brought it to her in the bakery section for approval, and then wrapped and priced it. Did she pay too much? She doesn't think so and neither do I.
Service differentiates. That's one of the things Carr missed completely in his May 2003 , Harvard Business Review, article titled: "IT Doesn't Matter." Limit your view of IT to his, and you'll have to agree with him: in an all Windows world IT really doesn't matter. The contrary position is oxymoronic: i.e. it makes no sense to even think about strategic differentiation in IT after you've let your organization get lumbered with the same software, the same hardware, and the same interchangeable MCSEs as your competition.
As an aside, you might want to think about the value of doing this backwards by making yourself a supplier to your competition. Imagine the opportunities, for example, for hassle free industrial espionage if the Airbus consortium controlled the company making, and supporting, Boeing's design software.
Carr assumes IT maturity because he sees commoditization in his part of the IT world. That's actually a common mistake, in reality Wintel isn't a commodity market - those are characterized by many competing producers of interchangeable products like wheat or copper. That distinction, of course, doesn't matter to an IT manager, what matters is that Carr's right about strategic differentiation: IT does not differentiate two companies using the same hardware, the same software, and the same interchangeable people. As in Duh: if the market forces you to use the same IT architecture everybody else does, then you've got to find your strategic advantages somewhere outside that architecture.
For you as an IT manager that somewhere else comes in two parts. In the short term try getting services right: users will love you, and if costs go up a bit relative to using the out sourcer, well my Scottish mother in law doesn't care and neither will they.
In the longer term you need to escape from the trap of sameness and if that ends up cutting costs, great; but if not, don't worry about it. Users carp about costs when you run the same Wintel stuff everybody else does because that's the only way they have to express their deep dissatisfaction with the result; not because they actually care about a few bucks. Give them great service, and they'll trust you to help find them better products to use.
That's where true competitive advantage comes from: not from delivering the same software for a nickel less, but from finding better ways to do things. Think different. Consider something radical -get rid of that absurd the PC in favor of Macs or big screen Sunrays: you don't need a computer with 256MB of RAM and a fifty million line OS to run a browser and a word processor that loses files.
Remember, Carr is right: there is no corporate value in the IT department if that department doesn't provide services out sourcers aren't also selling the competition. But, break out of the same old, same old, defining his IT context and he's dead wrong: doing things differently incurs the risk of doing things badly, but also earns the opportunity to have IT count as a strategic differentiator for the business. So get going on service quality - and use the time and trust this buys you to break your data center free of the limits of homogenization.