IT management secrets from the Grateful Dead

Come to think of it, Jerry Garcia wouldn’t look out of place in the back office. The very, very back office.

I was intrigued by an article from Joshua Green in the March issue of Atlantic Monthly about the growing musicology surrounding the Grateful Dead and how many of their approaches to the business of being a band could inform the strategies of enterprise executives. Technology professionals weren’t brought into this picture, but just as IT managers try to become more comfortable with the business mindset it wasn’t hard to see where the lessons could be adapted. To wit:

Use good service to gain loyalty and buy-in: As Green notes, the “customer-first” philosophy wasn’t entrenched when the Dead first became popular, but there’s a reason for all those Deadheads. “(They) established a telephone hotline to alert them to its touring schedule ahead of any public announcement, reserved for them some of the best seats in the house, and capped the price of tickets, which the band distributed through its own mail-order house,” he writes. IT departments can’t always provide the level of support they would like, but by concentrating on offering great feedback mechanisms and communication tools that create more comraderie among users, they might develop some ITHeads to call their own.

Add pragmatism to policy: Long before Napster and BitTorrent, the Grateful Dead were on the case. “Peace and love notwithstanding, (the band) did not hesitate to sue those who violated their copyrights. But they weren’t greedy, and they adapted well,” Green notes. “They famously permitted fans to tape their shows, ceding a major revenue source in potential record sales . . . it reflected a shrewd assessment that tape sharing would widen their audience, a ban would be unenforceable, and anyone inclined to tape a show would probably spend money elsewhere, such as on merchandise or tickets. The Dead became one of the most profitable bands of all time.” IT managers are often put in the uncomfortable position of corporate enforcer, denying access to Web-based services or programs that haven’t been approved from on high. Take a closer look at the tradeoffs – lower productivity, distrust or alienation among users – and see if there is an upside to introducing more flexibility.

Crowdsource the knowledge base: “Even with the recent renaissance, Dead scholars are few,” says Green, who describes the sizeable collection of information being donated to a U.S. library. “The bulk of the expertise lies outside the academy, with ordinary Deadheads. So Santa Cruz library officials have devised a novel approach (some would call it strategic improvisation) to curating the collection. They intend to post as much of it as possible online in the hope that Deadheadszealous social networkers that they arewill contribute their knowledge, and perhaps material of their own, to help build up the record.” The IT environments of most organizations would be as impenetrable as many Grateful Dead Lyrics. Why not create wikis, forums and other intranet-style tools to help users track their compute needs, document the most common problems and brainstorm solutions?

If business managers can learn from the Grateful Dead, I see no reason why IT managers can’t do the same. Just be careful about citing them in strategy sessions. They might look at you as if you’re on drugs.

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