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Starbucks' Help Desk Secret: Model An Apple Store

Could your IT help desk learn a thing or two from the Apple genius bar concept? Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett, InformationWeek's IT Chief of the year, sees it as the latest step in the consumerization of business IT.

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Inside Starbucks' Seattle headquarters, a new IT help desk for employees opened last month, and it's unmistakably modeled on the Apple Store. Dubbed the Tech Cafe, it includes Mac and PC laptops laid out on smooth wooden counters for employees to tinker with, and smartphones on a front table for them to look at. Employees can pick out the equipment they want and bill it to their department. If they're having a tech problem, or an idea for software or hardware they could use on the job, they can set up an appointment with a staffer to talk at the Genius Bar look-alike front counter. Or they can just drop in and ask. The cafe has a bright green entranceway, with a giant plasma screen in the lobby showing real-time tweets that mention Starbucks.

Starbucks Senior Business Systems Analyst Jonathan Fadden
Fadden: New look for IT support

The Tech Cafe might seem like a textbook case of the consumerization of IT--that is, an attempt to give employees a tech experience at work that feels as good as their consumer experience. And that's a part of it. But Starbucks CIO Stephen Gillett thinks it meets another need. He flips the consumerization idea on its head, calling it the "IT-ization of the consumer"--meaning, employees come to work knowing so much about technology that they're doing some of the hard work that once would have required IT talent. Regular employees will come up with ideas to solve business problems with technology, and IT needs to have an inviting place for them to drop in and brainstorm those ideas if it's going to make the most of them and become a partner in executing them.

The retail atmosphere is as intentional as it is unmistakable. The Tech Cafe staff even have snappy collared shirts, so people know whom to ask for help.

I thought the logo on their shirts looked sharp, so I asked Jonathan Fadden, who was wearing one, if I could take a picture of it. Sure, Fadden said, and after I snapped one he smiled and turned back to work. Then he circled back: "Did anyone tell you I designed the logo?" he asked. No one had, and Fadden, whose title is senior business systems analyst, explained how he does photography and graphic design as a hobby, so he had asked if he could take a crack at creating the logo.

I congratulated him on it, and Fadden headed off again. Then he circled back once more: "Did you know the logo is based on the caffeine molecule?" Now that's too cool. And it's another good example of how much talent, tech and otherwise, is hiding inside most companies.

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