Quite a few years ago, I briefly joined a subcommittee of a national telecommunications managers association. The subcommittee’s issue: Telecommunications as a Strategic Resource. (“Telecommunications, in this context, means voice communications technology.)

The first twenty minutes of the meeting consisted of a bunch of telecom managers explaining how important telecommunications is to the organization, and on techniques for communicating this fact to senior management. The short version: if a company loses dial-tone it has a big problem, so telecommunications is strategic.

Because I doze off in meetings if I don’t occasionally speak, I offered a suggestion: “If we want to be viewed as a strategic resource, maybe our first step should be making sure we are a strategic resource.”

As I said, I joined only briefly. They never told me the time and place of the next meeting.

As a character in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s science fiction novels used to say, “We can’t all play first-chair violin. Some of us have to push air through the tubas.” Not everything we do is strategic. Sometimes we have to settle for importance.

IS has three distinct, important roles to play. Borrowing from military and game theory, we can call them Strategic, Tactical, and Logistic contributions to company success.

Logistics is the art of making sure the troops have everything they need to win. It includes getting them to the battlefield on time, making sure they have food and ammunition … all those little details that matter so much when two armies are trying to kill each other.

Translated to the business world, logistics includes everything that supplies employees with the basics they need to do their jobs – telephone service, voice and electronic mail, perhaps a word processor and spreadsheet. Stuff like that. Logistic services don’t add value so much as their absence subtracts value. They’re like plumbing – it’s not strategic, but if the pipes break you have a big mess on your hands.

Tactics covers the detailed maneuvers that have to be orchestrated to win a particular battle. Napoleon, for example, was a master tactician, noted for his ability to pin an opposing force in place through a feint to the front while having his cavalry attack from a different, unexpected direction, confusing his enemy and ultimately destroying it.

In business, tactics includes all core processes and the applications that support them. Do you have an order-entry call center? Improving how you run it gives you a tactical advantage. Do you use a workflow/imaging/document management system? If so, you’re probably using it to tactical advantage. In fact, everything you do to improve the business you’re in today has to do with either logistics or tactics. IS expends most of its time and attention in pursuit of its logistic and tactical roles in the organization. As it should. You have to survive until the future gets here, after all.

How about strategy? That deals with larger-scale objectives. Is your company market, product, or competency driven? That’s a strategic decision. Does it try to define market dynamics, or does it look for unexploited market niches? Does it compete on price or does it try to support high margins through exceptional service? Does it innovate, or perfect and integrate the innovations of others? All of these are strategic issues, as are decisions regarding what new product categories, markets, or competencies will be needed to thrive in the future.

IS has a vital role in helping companies achieve strategic goals. You take the first step, of course, when you understand the difference between IS’s strategic role and its logistic and tactical roles. You take the second when you take the time to understand and internalize the company’s strategy.

That’s when you’re ready to engage in a dialog with your company’s leadership to mutually decide what new technologies, technical capabilities, applications and infrastructure the company will need to achieve its strategic goals.

My stock broker, who handles my vast (okay, half-vast) investment portfolio, recently changed companies. In response, his employer threatened to sue him if he asked any clients to move with him.

Their tactics were futile. While their communications with my broker were extensive, they neglected to contact me with the identity of my new broker, or even to let me know they valued my business. So I took my business elsewhere.

Several software companies have also tried to use the courts to protect their markets. Apple, Ashton-Tate, Lotus Development, to name a few of the higher-profile cases, have sued competitors for using their intellectual property. All of them lost.

“Hey, wait a minute,” you’re probably saying. “Lotus won some of those lawsuits!”

I wasn’t talking about how the lawsuits came out. I’m talking about the marketplace. Here’s a fact: every company that’s spent its corporate resources defending intellectual property has given up the future of its franchise in the bargain.

This came to me as I sorted through the e-mails and InfoWorld Electric Forum postings responding to my column describing Bill Gates as a revolutionary. (I suggested that he, alone in the industry except for the largely ineffectual Apple Computer, is focused on empowering the end-user – often at the expense of manageability of the desktop.)

The relatively scarce agreement came from end-users who feel stifled by central IS and want to use their computers as they choose. Disagreement came in several forms, most stemming from a misunderstanding over what it means to be a revolutionary.

Some readers objected to Gates-as-revolutionary because of his reprehensible tactics in the marketplace. Here’s a news flash: very few successful revolutionaries have emphasized ethical behavior. Successful revolutionaries tend to be ends-justify-means kinds of people.

I didn’t say Gates is a Good Guy. I don’t hang out in his circles, so I can’t comment. I don’t personally like some of Microsoft’s market tactics either. That’s my privilege, and theirs. I just said Gates sports some characteristics of a revolutionary, that’s all. (To those comparing Bill Gates to Stalin and Hitler: the former dominates a few software markets. The latter murdered millions. Big difference.)

And give Chairman Bill credit: unlike many of Microsoft’s competitors, it wins in the marketplace, not in the courts. The courts are for status-quo people trying to keep other companies down-and-out. The market is the PC revolution’s battlefield, where companies compete for the hearts and minds of customers.

Other readers objected to my calling Gates a revolutionary because he hasn’t come up with any new ideas of his own, instead repackaging the innovations of others.

True enough. Bill Gates has spent his career recognizing good ideas, turning them into products, and successfully marketing them. Successful political revolutionaries have similar histories. Washington led the army; John Locke theorized about democracy before him. Lenin, Mao Tse-Dong and Castro led successful revolutions; Karl Marx theorized about communism before they used his theories to justify their revolutions.

Revolutionaries aren’t inventors. They’re not theoreticians. They’re not pioneers. Those are other people. They’re important people. They just aren’t revolutionaries.

Microsoft has, at times, innovated. More often, it’s used whatever good ideas it can find, integrating them and packaging them to its advantage. That’s not cheating. That’s smart.

Let’s relate this to your own management style. Do you insist on using only those good ideas you’ve developed on your own?

Suggestion: List the dozen most important initiatives you’ve personally promoted in your management career. Mark each one as (a) an idea you thought of yourself; (b) a recommendation from someone who reports to you; or (c) an idea you encountered from outside your organization and appropriated for your own use.

If at least a third of the items didn’t come from outside, you need to rethink your approach. Your job is to find and sponsor good ideas, not to generate them all.