Blame IT.

Earlier this month, Cringely blamed Best Buy’s IT for the company’s woes. His observations make sense. I can only add two things.

IT talent. Some recruiting firms go shopping at Best Buy, not for computers, but for talent. They’ll hit a few stores with some tough computer questions, and if they find someone who seems to have a good number of answers, they recruit the person. Granted, it takes some time for someone to progress from the sales floor or the technician’s booth to desktop support and then to the server room, but there seems to be a missed opportunity there.

Of course, it’s not a quick fix, either. Any effort to keep the developing talent in the company until it’s ready to bloom and pay huge dividends would take time. But when I think of the ex-Best Buy employees I know who spent time on their sales floor in the 1990s, I can think of two people in particular who probably could help the company right now, had there been any future in the company for them beyond installing memory upgrades and hard drives. Since there wasn’t, they’re making things happen for other companies here in St. Louis now.

Too many companies. Cringely also pointed out that different companies run their network, their Windows servers, their Unix servers, and so on. Now, I once worked on a project where one company ran development and another company ran the day-to-day operations. When those contracts expired, one company won all of them, so it was one company handling development and operations. After three years of that, the project went back to one company doing development and another running operations. I believe there is more accountability when there are two companies involved, because sometimes it really is the other company’s fault, and in that case Company A is more likely to speak up about Company B than the operations department speak up about the development department in the same company (or vice versa).

So compartmentalization can be a good thing, but it sounds like Best Buy may have too much of a good thing. I spent a decade sitting next to network guys. We worked well together. When there was a problem, we worked together to fix it. They handled the networks, and for seven of those years, I handled Windows and Unix. We worked for the same company and reported to the same boss. This arrangement worked, because sometimes it’s not clear where the problem lies and blame not being an option is very conducive to solving the problems when they happen. I’d troubleshoot at layer 1 of the network layer, then he’d take over for a few layers, and I’d take over again somewhere around layer 6. Between the two of us, we covered a lot of ground and solved a lot of problems really fast.

IT gets the blame often enough as it is, so the old proverb about a house divided against itself not being able to stand seems apt here.

Cringely states that Best Buy has other problems that its IT department is ill-equipped to help, such as inventory problems–the secret of Wal-Mart’s success–and price-matching. Price matching was the way Best Buy survived the 1990s against its then-larger rivals. They would send out mystery shoppers to record prices, then lower the prices in the store in response. And if a customer found one that the store missed, a manager’s signature was all it took to match the price. Today it can be nearly automatic–certainly more efficient than sending out droves of mystery shoppers. But, as Cringely states, a solid, cohesive, in-this-together IT department is one of the things it takes to make something like that happen.

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