Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ethical IT business - The Gartner approach and a Harvard Business School story

The headline might suggest an oxymoron. Ethics and IT business do not sit well together. This is the conclusion to be drawn from the shenanigans of Apple in its tax evading, virtual non-state status. What a crock of a company.

You could say there are Americans and there are Americans. There are two categories.

Type 1: Apple Americans. Their business is always business. They embody the phrases US President Calvin Coolidge is alleged to have said in the 1920s: "The business of America is business."  Their specialization is to cut corners, crush competitors, take no prisoners, act as a monopoly whenever possible... that is the story from Standard Oil / Rockefeller to Microsoft / Gates. (It is not only an American story, but if you claim righteousness and world leadership, you are going to suffer intense scrutiny.)

Type 2: Innovative Americans. In most cases they share the same ethic as the Apple folk with clear provisos.They accept the rules. The primary one being that as Americans they gain benefits from society, such as the governance the Government provides in the form of contract law, intellectual property protections, investment in universities for research purposes, and development of civil society through productive employment.

The second type are a class above. Why? Because they act in more than their own self interest. They do that because they know that to act only in their own interest is to unleash barbarian instincts that they have been taught to suppress, redirect and regulate. Of course this is not to suggest that they are soft when it comes to business. This is often misunderstood about innovators. Toughness - intellectual and personal. Probably always flawed.

So why Gartner? As a former employee who had two+ wonderful years as a consultant and researcher in the Raleigh, North Carolina office, I follow the company's plus progress with affection and some pride. It was at Gartner I learned to defer to genuine brilliance in work colleagues who knew American business inside out, but were never bullies, bigots or bastards. Not all the employees were like this, not at all. Some of them were Apples and then some.

I learned lessons about independent perspectives, about keeping your nerve and being supported by the corporation because they believed in their employees. I participated in analyst and researcher meetings where software specialists would crucify Microsoft, describing it as the worst thing that had ever happened to computer software because it held innovation back... oh and it was a monopoly, and thus undermined the aspirations of contemporary capitalism to offer opportunities for innovators. The advent of Google and the rapid shift in computing since Google has shown my colleagues to be correct. They'd say in 2001 that Microsoft has held back innovative software computing by 15-20 years!  

This represented independent thinking and business acumen rolled into the best brains in the business.

The second example that comes to mind also highlights the difference between Apple and Innovative Americans.  This was an anecdote told to me when I was chairing the Melbourne-Boston Sister City Association. In 2009 the chair of that organization Rob Trenberth went to a Harvard reunion. The global financial collapse was well advanced. According to Rob, the Professoriate at Harvard were in crisis, perhaps even horrified by the realisation that much of the illicit activity undertaken on Wall Street that caused the crash was due to the actions of Harvard Business School graduates. As a result ethics became a key part of the curricula and training at Harvard Business School. (They already had the envious reputation of having had Enron's Jeffrey Skilling graduate from HBS - it doesn't get much worse than that!)  

It's a fine line between Apple Americans and Innovation Americans. The concepts that makes Innovation appealing are those where the angels of a better business nature are inscribed in the American belief in redemption through renewal and reinvention.