C.K. Prahalad and the bottom of the IT pyramid

 The death of C.K. Prahalad has gotten me thinking. Which is probably what he hoped his life’s work would accomplish.

Described in his Bloomberg BusinessWeek obituary as a “management thinker,” Prahalad could also be considered an IT management thinker, given his experience co-authoring books such as The New Age of Innovation. When I started out in the industry, I started hearing about the importance of focusing on “core competency” by every major expert, none of whom credited Prahalad with coming up with the idea. The idea of focusing on all the potential customers at the “bottom of the pyramid” became even more widespread with the rise of customer relationship management (CRMs) in the early 2000s. The social media community, meanwhile, owes more to his ideas about the need to give consumers a voice than it may realize.

For IT managers, however, Prahalad’s thinking may be more difficult to apply. You could argue that in the last 10 years, it has become more difficult than ever for technology professionals to identify their core competency. Is it IT? Is it saving costs? Aligning with the business? Fostering mobility, communications and productivity? A cottage industry has grown out of such questions.

The “bottom of the pyramid” in enterprise IT, meanwhile, might be those scores of worker bees who normally get ignored, sometimes out of necessity, by technology managers who decide to focus their priorities on addressing the tech support issue of the CEO and his executive team, or on the departments within the business with the most obvious tie to profit. Particularly during these difficult economic times, you can see why IT departments would focus on where their paycheques are coming from. You can’t invest in everything, everywhere all the time.

Prahalad was writing about poverty and nascent markets, not IT, but I think we could stretch the metaphor a little further. His insight included the observation that poor people had money. In the enterprise, those areas seen primarily as administrative or cost centres can sometimes offer ideas that make money, even in small but incrementally beneficial amounts. Prahalad noted that the bottom of the pyramid has been connected thanks to the advent of mobile phones. The same is true for low-level information workers who once only accessed IT through their work-issued PC. Unconventional methods, like the one-on-one “Avon lady” approach to marketing and distribution, can work well at the bottom of the pyramid, Prahalad argued. Most enterprise employees react to personalized attention and service in a similarly positive manner.

There was no long-term benefit in treating the poor as a burden, Prahalad said. Neither is treating the mass of users/customers as a thing to be endured. Instead, cultivate ways to tap into their experience, learn from their challenges and empower their bottom-up success through social media or other vehicles. This may not be where a lot of IT managers are spending their time today. We might see a flourishing profession if they started to think of it as their core competency.

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