Drawing a bead and taking the lead on wireless

Information Age companies are about one-eighth of the way to becoming wireless. I can’t help but wonder whether Industrial Age companies, at the same juncture, recognized that they were migrating to a horseless world. They were probably more passive as they watched the postanimal-power economy evolve. Did they have horseless strategies?

IT leaders are uncertain whether wireless technology belongs in the “do now,” “do next” or “do later” time bucket. The ritual summer slowdown makes this a good time to pause and examine this future career-maker/breaker for IT leaders. Wireless is a slow-moving train on the cusp of gathering momentum. IT leaders have the opportunity of shaping this train before it enters the station. Instead of playing catch-up, you can lead on this issue.

Here are five ways to exert leadership on wireless technology:

– Get smart about it. Perform a market overview. Understand the technology issues associated with wireless. (Security is a big deal here.) Understand the costs and how your company’s customers, their customers and your business unit executives feel about the issue. And hold a “wireless Woodstock” to synthesize and showcase your findings to internal constituencies and external sources of expertise, such as a consultant who will help you with a wireless implementation.

– Create a “thinkers and dinkers” database, made up of thoughts from journalists and analysts who cover the wireless arena, plus the academics conducting research into it. Find the truly smart people in the space and build relationships with them.

– Create a “players database,” consisting of vendors that are prototyping products and consultants offering services. This phrase comes from George Geis’ brilliant new book, Digital Deals: Strategies for Selecting and Structuring Partnerships (McGraw-Hill, 2001).

– Select target vendors. The black eyes that many large and sophisticated organizations experienced with slow ERP deployments have led to a re-examination of the “buy what they have” way of dealing with vendors. In the wireless arena, we’re seeing a transition among select groups of high-performance organizations to co-create differentiated technological platforms with trusted vendors.

– Build and implement a pilot project. Find a business unit whose use of wireless could differentiate relationships with customers. The optimal pilot project involves fewer than 100 users and takes eight to 10 weeks to deploy. The emerging lessons should include skills that must be developed, a rough idea of costs, issues in dealing with wireless technology vendors and security and privacy concerns.

I’m excited about the wireless arena, not so much because of the underlying technology or its application, but because it can be a perfect test case for the increasingly proactive and truly strategic role of the CIO and IT organization. Historically, IT has been placed in the uncomfortable role of playing catch-up to vendor-driven “hurry or you’ll miss out” hype. This is the first time I can recall that that hype machine has stalled.

Wireless remains a fuzzy and ill-defined concept in the minds of most senior executives. What exactly is it? To some, wireless is synonymous with cell phones. To others, it’s a much larger grab bag of devices, including Web-enabled phones, PDAs, handheld games, MP3 devices, digital cameras and e-mail terminals.

In the face of such widespread confusion, a well-informed, clear-thinking IT organization has an opportunity to catalyze and manage conversations shaping executives’ thinking that will drive wireless strategy and subsequent deployment. If we’re not all thumbs, we hold our wireless future in our hands.

May is corporate futurist and chief awareness officer at Guardent Inc. in Waltham, Mass. Contact him at thornton.may@guardent.com.