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A CIO view on the new consumer 'killer apps' popping up in his organization

CIO Niel Nickolaisen says yes to the new crop of consumer 'killer apps' -- and urges fellow IT leaders to do the same.

Niel NickolaisenIn the past, consumer "killer apps" have driven big changes in enterprise computing. Some of you young kids might not remember VisiCalc or Lotus 1-2-3, but they were the consumer spreadsheet killer applications that pretty much forced the traditional mainframe-supporting MIS department to accept these things called "personal computers." It was not e-commerce but the killer (originally consumer) app of email that forced us to connect our networks to the world. In a very short period of time, email became the primary mode of communication with prospects, clients, suppliers and partners. And, as is often the case with these consumer killer apps, we IT types did not bring them into the enterprise -- they were applications that we, at first, resisted and then had to accept and embrace.

Some of these consumer applications are much easier to use than what we offer. For example, one of my departments has embraced Dropbox as its preferred document-sharing application. In this department, "Dropbox" has become a verb (e.g., "I'll just Dropbox that for you so that you can see what I wrote"). If I am honest with myself, I really don't offer a service as easy to use as Dropbox for document-sharing. My shared network drives are a bit of a pain to use, and so my internal customers have found something they prefer.

I have the same situation with laptop backup and restore. Both Mozy and Carbonite are brain-dead simple to use, and so my users just go buy a subscription, expense it and don't even think about whether we have an internal application that can help them. (By the way, we do, but it is not as easy to use as either Mozy or Carbonite.)

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It seems that when it comes to these consumer killer apps, I have two choices: I can block them, thwart them, discourage them and punish those who use them, etc.; or I can embrace them and offer them -- ideally before anyone knows they want or need them. To me the choice is clear: I want to embrace them. I have seen too many of my peers that stayed in the "No" business to their own peril. Can you imagine an IT leader who refused to support email? Years ago, such people existed. Can you imagine an IT leader who refuses to listen to internal market demand for easy-to-use, simple-to-acquire applications that people love? I don't just imagine them; I meet them all the time. (I call them "dead men walking.")

One of my departments has embraced Dropbox as its preferred document-sharing application. … If I am honest with myself, I really don't offer a service as easy to use as Dropbox for document-sharing.

Perhaps our definition of IT consumerization should include the role that these consumer killer apps play in forcing our hands. Thinking this way might move us from a laggard to leader role as we scour the landscape for the killer apps and provide them before anyone else knows they want them.

What might some of these consumer killer apps be? File sharing is one. So is simplified expense reporting. The range is pretty broad, including applications for tracking shipments, optimizing travel costs and pretty much anything to do with financial transaction and credit card processing.  (How many retailers have rogue stores that are using Square to avoid the pain of register-based checkout?) How about location applications? With a smartphone, I can find anything near me. What location-based applications can I provide my employees so they can know everything they want about what is around them? I think the growing list of lightweight, easy-to-use collaboration products is another one -- I have lots of employees bypassing the service we provide to use

It might be worth our time to ask a few members of our staff (both some of the young kids and the old dogs) to seek out and try some of these consumer killer apps and figure out how we can offer them to our customers -- ahead of the crushing demand. That way, we are the people in the "Yes" business.

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What should the CIO stance be on consumer killer apps in the enterprise?
One of a CIO’s responsibilities is strategic planning for the effective use of technology. There is, of course, no single answer. Numerous factors are at play, starting with the nature of the business segment or public sector in which the CIO functions.

In some segments, technology is a critical competitive enabler and, potentially, a differentiator. In that environment, the opportunity to “get in front” may offer significant rewards.

For other business segments, technology may simply provide necessary supporting infrastructure. In those cases, a simple risk/reward analysis might be the key.

So under a given set of circumstances, any of the three responses may be appropriate.

Vic Brown
I agree with Vic - it likely depends on what kind of business (size, industry) you're in. Though I'd say in any case that a hard-and-fast "resist" rule probably is not going to work.
Getting in front of the demand - "Says easy does hard". Informal meetings with the new kids and old dogs is a good idea, but a rigor to do this regularly, may put the normal operations that IT provides the enterpise organization at risk... Unless this is a recognized business goal that passes all the gates to be a value to the business that in imperative. Now the project is born and all the necessary stakeholders can buy-in with $$ and resources....
If Dropbox is easier to use than your shared drives then fix your shared drives to be better than Dropbox.
I believe those not in favor are simply afraid of the technology. Just like most unknowns, people react to them with negativity rather than educate themselves. This is no different. A single misplaced ego can corrupt corporate evolution.
The problem is you can never tell which app will really be killer and which will be "killed." I remember when MySpace was the killer app. I'll wait until I know for sure which apps I have to support and which are just time sinks.
If you don't embrace the change, users go round you and cause more problems than you want. CIO get with it!
We should be embracing, providing apps that can drive productivity and sales.