Planned obsolescence

One of the real satisfactions of IT comes from finishing a large technology upgrade. You raise a glass of champagne to that new datacenter or storage array and congratulate everyone who helped build it. At that moment, the furthest thing from your mind is how to junk it.

If so, you probably aren’t planning your company’s IT strategy far enough ahead. So says Randy Mott, CIO and senior vice president of technology at Dell Inc. and architect of the fast-moving company’s IT.

“I believe in planned obsolescence,” Mott says. “As you make technology decisions, you should also be planning how and when to obsolete that technology. An IT department should define itself by how fast it can change.”

Radical advice? Sure. But then Dell didn’t get to be the No. 1 maker of personal computers by standing still.

“There’s no such thing at Dell as finished, done, good enough,” says founder and chairman Michael Dell. “We have a fundamental belief that we can improve things all the time, so we are constantly looking for opportunities.”

Take enterprise IT. Whereas many existing manufacturers treat server and storage hardware as low-volume, high-margin businesses, Dell aims to squeeze the prices down — and boost market share — through relentless manufacturing and supply-chain efficiency.

That’s good news for buyers, bad news for competitors, as noted in this week’s feature stories, as noted in this week’s feature stories. Already, the company says it ships more servers in the U.S. by unit volume than any other vendor, and it’s No. 2 in server shipments worldwide.

Mott brings a similar restless energy to IT planning. “Normally, companies devote 30 (per cent) or 40 per cent of IT resources to development. But Dell now devotes 50 per cent to R&D. Next year, it will be 60 per cent and, eventually, 70 (per cent) to 75 per cent.”

The main goal of that R&D is to boost Dell’s efficiency — to its own and its customers’ benefit. “If a company is not investing in IT to bring new functionality to its business, then what will it do to grow, manage smarter?” Mott asks. He advises looking ahead to figure out how to dismantle new technologies even as they are adopted, so that the company always has a plan for moving to newer, more cost-effective solutions. “Then you can either invest the money you save in R&D or drop it to the bottom line,” he says.

Isn’t it self-serving for a company that sells hardware to preach planned obsolescence? Of course. But the principle is sound. Having watched Dell from afar and up close over the years, I think the company has a genius for constant self-improvement. Many of us would have much to gain from emulating this trait.