Google It: IT`s Competitive Advantage

When people talk about Google as a corporate entity, they often talk–jealously, at times–about the company’s innovative culture, with its sprawling campus, free meals and endless amenities.

One of the people at the forefront of that culture is Google’s CIO. Ben Fried believes that IT plays a pivotal role in building a great culture–and subsequently a great company–and he puts it into practice in a number of ways.

One part of that is making technology accessible and open. By giving users what they want–instead of what the company believes is best–Fried believes CIOs can empower employees to do more. “It’s almost insulting to people when they hear, ‘We know better than you how it’s best for you to work,'” he says. And the company benefits not only from the increased productivity and morale, but also when recruiting talented support professionals.

But it also puts a good face on IT. In an era in which business users believe their IT organizations take too long and spend too much for products and services that don’t meet their needs, CIOs and their teams need to make smarter decisions, he says.

Fried has gleaned these and other lessons from his time at Google, and from his previous work as an infrastructure architect at Morgan Stanley. Fried spoke recently about his IT leadership philosophy with CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian P. Watson. What follows is an edited, condensed version of their discussion.

CIO Insight: You’ve worked in two industries–finance and technology–where IT is often a competitive advantage. What have you learned?

Fried: A lot of CIOs say their only job is to create competitive advantage for their company. I shade it a little differently. Creating competitive advantage is incredibly important, but I think you need to be aware that differentiation doesn’t necessarily have to limit itself to competitive advantage. Competitive advantage is one important way in which a company can differentiate itself.

But more and more, people need to understand the way IT becomes part of corporate culture. Part of establishing a great company is establishing a unique culture. It’s critical to find what defines your company and makes it different. It might not necessarily be making the product better or cheaper that creates competitive advantage. Technology has a unique opportunity to make your company different, and that’s what CIOs need to focus on.

One thing CIOs–and other executives, I’m sure–have a hard time with is that the things that got you into that seat have very little do with the things you need to do once you’re in it. You have to eliminate all sentimentality from yourself. It’s very easy to want to continue doing the things that got you to where you are, but you have to realize that you have to take a broader view of the company.

What other mistakes do CIOs run into when it comes to differentiation?

Fried:A lot of CIOs don’t get that there are different economies they can harness by forgetting the business of building out infrastructure. Infrastructure, in general, is rarely something that is a great differentiator. You have to carefully consider how many endeavors you want to be engaged in that are notable to your company only in their absence.

No one ever calls you up because packets were really fast today, or because they hit “send” in an e-mail client and the window disappeared right away. No one will ever thank you for doing those things. There are only so many things that any one organization or CIO can spend time on. How much time do you want to spend on things that aren’t noticeable? A lot of CIOs got started by building all this stuff out, so it’s really hard to look back and say, “Do I really need to keep doing this?”

At Morgan Stanley, we were very early customers of the Google search appliance. A lot of the young people there had their first exposure to productivity applications via Google Apps. That’s what they wanted. We gave them something else, which was more expensive and not what they wanted to deal with. It made me think: How do you deal with this, because there’s only so long you can give them the tools they don’t want and expect to get out of them everything they’re capable of.

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