Sorry Corporate IT: You’re Not in the Driver’s Seat Anymore

In case you were looking to take control back from your end users anytime soon, the odds of that are looking increasingly dim. But the struggles of a tech company originally built around B2B show that there's still room to control something even bigger: the infrastructure.

The world of mobile devices, never really a particularly boring place, is a little more exciting than usual these days.

But it’s a high-noise, low-signal time. That’s because we just saw iOS 7 launch last week, at a time when we’re hearing a lot of cries of boring about Apple’s iPhones. Most of Nokia just got bought out by Microsoft—leading to a lot of think pieces about how Nokia blew it, and why the deal doesn’t make sense. We’re also seeing claims of a maturing smartphone market—claims that always strike me as odd, because a lot of innovation still appears to be happening. (I’m with ASAE CIO Reggie Henry, who mentioned when I was talking to him for this piece that we’ve seen more growth in the tech space in the past three years than we had in the previous 20.)

But while you were upgrading your iPhone to iOS7 last week (a lot of you did), you might have missed a story about a former mobile titan’s financial death spiral.

It’s a rough story (and one that could move in an even darker direction from here), but the company’s potential next steps offer some lessons that might come in handy for your department.

BlackBerry vs. B2C

Back in July, a piece I wrote on the current state of the BlackBerry posed a question that seemed like a reasonable one to ask, considering the less-than-stellar financial results of the company’s big Z10 marketing push: “Could a smartphone pioneer shut down?

Now it’s almost October, and things have gone from mediocre to disastrous in the span of a single quarter. BlackBerry [the company formerly known as Research in Motion] expects to announce a loss of nearly $1 billion when its current quarter ends, and it is laying off almost 40 percent of its staff as a result.

And after that bit of bad news sunk in, some ground-shaking moves hit the company on Monday—the company will be sold to a private group, led by Fairfax Financial Holdings, in a reported $4.7 billion deal that’s far from the company’s heights of just a few years ago. The deal, driven by an investor that already owns a large stake in the company, will take the company off the stock market at a point when its fortunes are flagging and its competitors are among the world’s largest companies.

The platform still has its fans—just check the comments on my July article, many of which professed admiration for the then-new BlackBerry Q10—but the article, and its response, were still fresh in my mind when I ran into a Washington Post piece on the current crisis.

“Superficially, Research in Motion’s problem is that it was slow to jump on the multitouch revolution kicked off by the iPhone. But its real problem was deeper,” The Post‘s Timothy B. Lee argued. “BlackBerry’s core strength is selling products to businesses instead of consumers. And in the last five years, appealing to consumers has become essential for succeeding in the smartphone market.”

That cuts to the core of the entire debate here: The company was built around B2B sales, then the market flipped on them, moving to a B2C focus. While The Wall Street Journal notes the company continues to have strongholds in large businesses as well as government and financial institutions, an analyst they spoke to, Enterprise Management Associates’ Steve Brasen, noted that the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend seems to have caught them off guard. “They imploded,” he said.

Let’s be honest: Isn’t this something we keep seeing? When it comes to everything from cloud computing to social media, a lot of direct control is slipping out of the IT department’s hands and into the hands of users—either inside the office or outside of it—in terms of catering to what they want.

What This Means for IT

Situations like BlackBerry’s prove something I’ve mentioned in the past: We’re past the top-down strategy. Technology has matured to the point that a lot of the day-to-day stuff will be flowing from consumers’ hands into our infrastructure—not the other way around.

This creates challenges, clearly. You have to do more to adapt to your various audiences: On mobile, on social media, and in your own office. You’ll have more wrenches thrown your way than you’ll know what to do with, so you’ll need to be good at ducking—or you’ll need a strong infrastructure to keep those wrenches from even leaving a dent.

The saving grace for BlackBerry as a company could reflect these infrastructure considerations. The WSJ notes that even as companies are moving toward BYOD and away from using BlackBerry’s phones, many are choosing to keep or adopt the BlackBerry Enterprise Service, which has been built to support devices spanning the mobile sphere. If they can build the platform out correctly, it could be a really smart move.

(Side note: If a BlackBerry is the device you bring to work, more power to you.)

Moving from devices to services isn’t unprecedented, either: IBM did something very similar two decades ago, and it proved a fairly prudent move [PDF]. The only real difference? Then, we were talking mainframes. Now, we’re talking phones.

But infrastructure can be a pretty great place to focus your energy—it leaves room for upgrading things like intranets. It means you can create the platform your employees talk on and concentrate on cross-platform things like security. There’s plenty of room for standard practices, even without a standard device.

If all of this talk of focusing on infrastructure over devices sounds like a bummer to you, think of the issue this way: You may not hold the end-user’s keys, turn the ignition, or even choose the car anymore, but you own the highway.

That means you can still set the rules of the road.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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