How an IT departments can deal with their own versions of Apple’s ‘Antennagate’

IT managers must wonder how Steve Jobs gets away with it, and they don’t.

Or not quite. Since Apple’s hastily-arranged press conference late last week, the CEO has gone under fire by nearly everyone for the way he dealt with the iPhone 4’s antennae issues. What few point out, however, is how similar Jobs’ tactics are to (weak) technology executives who are forced to face up to their own product or service deployment failures.

Consider the approach:

1)      Minimizing the issue: Jobs said that the reception problems were affecting only a tiny percentage of the overall user base, despite the hoopla being created in the media (Oops! Sorry Steve!). Enterprise IT managers don’t have the media to worry about, but disgruntlement, rumours and back-biting travel nearly as fast in corporate settings as headlines get fed to Twitter. That’s why, unless confronted with an army of co-workers, some IT managers may be tempted to downplay the lack of satisfaction around a particular implementation. Bad move.

2)      Shifting the blame: Jobs’ attempt to point out faults in most of Apple’s smartphone competitors, including Canada’s own RIM and its BlackBerry, came off as desperate and unprofessional (though, as ComputerWorld Canada's Rafael Ruffolo points out today, RIM may not be entirely blameless). So does carping from IT departments that suggests no vendor has got an ideal solution to a business problem, even though selecting an ideal solution (or fine-tuning a mediocre one until it performs) is their job. Really bad move.

3)      Burying the apology: I think my favourite display copy response to the press conference came from the Financial Post’s Matt Hartley, whose post read, “Mea copout.” In part I think Jobs’ reputed arrogance is to blame here: no one expected him to be overly conciliatory, and he wasn’t, so the venom is that much worse. IT departments are also sometimes dismissed as similarly aloof and impervious to the enmity they receive from users. Really, really bad move.

Of course, Apple will weather this storm, just as many enterprise IT failures are forgotten (if not entirely forgiven) in time. What may be worth thinking about, however, is how much differently that press conference could have gone. What if Jobs had expressed sincere regret that a product so universally celebrated by so many people did not live up to their expectations? What if it became obvious the purpose of the event was to listen, rather than pontificate? What if, instead of offering a freebie, Apple suggested a change in process?

Great IT departments can do more than survive technology blunders. They can turn them into opportunities for feedback that feeds continuous improvement. It’s only one way they can show they can do this job better than Jobs ever could.

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