By Jonathan Reichental, Ph.D.
Chief Information Officer
City of Palo Alto
Technology innovation abounds! We live in spectacular times. Change is happening rapidly and in unexpected ways. Market barriers for innovation have been lowered. Got an idea? You can make it happen.
But despite all the ebullience, much of our innovation still remains incremental. It’s more often evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In fact, that’s just the way it’s always been. New knowledge is created at its natural pace and new insights build upon it. Occasionally there is a ground shift and a new branch of knowledge emerges that itself spawns new products and services. In the information technology (IT) business, we see this every few years.
Sure, we should give credit where it’s due. The IT industry is more often at the leading edge of innovation when compared with other industries.
I write here, not about the IT innovation that we see happening in businesses every day and not about the important incremental innovation that helps businesses move forward, I’m referring to breakthrough innovation — the kind of innovation that reinvents everyday things. Of course it happens eventually, but it takes a long time.
The reality is that organizations are only capable and willing to adopt technology at their pace. It can be valuable to understand why this might be the case. No matter how much you fight it, the appetite for technology adoption at a given enterprise is a throttle on the velocity of new innovation.
If this were not the case, I imagine we would already have had teleportation and invisibility cloaks at our disposal.
Over my career working in and observing multiple enterprises, I’ve noted some consistent traits that provide rationale for their speed of technology adoption. It’s fair to say that there is a spread, but the majority in the bell curve move at a slow rate. Of course, there are always clear exceptions and we have to recognize those trailblazers too. However, even the first movers are constrained by the majority. The majority dictates the market.
Below I briefly discuss five reasons I believe enterprises continue to have a slow adoption rate for innovative technology. I’ll admit there are no surprises in this list. However, I think they are worth calling attention to, particularly since we are in an impressive period of IT innovation. I’ve also added some thoughts on how they could be addressed.
Decision-makers have many choices when investing scarce dollars on IT projects. In most organizations it’s a prioritization process that nobody enjoys. But it’s essential. Many great ideas fall by the wayside and never make the light of day in favor of more pressing enterprise needs. In this context, broad implementation of new technology — not research and development efforts — can have real problems securing funds.
Additionally, a new solution is often more expensive because of the change that needs to happen. It’s a bigger proposition than an upgrade, an enhancement, or the roll-out of a commodity-type ERP. Other costs, such as risk and the implementation unknowns, can provide a disincentive to decision-makers already jaded by too many failed IT projects.
ADVICE: Despite these constraints, many enlightened organizations still commit funds to high-risk, new technology projects, often by using dollars set aside specifically for these special projects. Decide if all projects should go through a standard IT governance or determine whether there should be an exception process that is triggered by technology that meets certain criteria such as high risk and uncertainty.
Today, fewer and fewer solutions remain islands among the IT infrastructure. There are often so many inter-dependencies that even a small change has downstream impacts that must be considered. Introducing new technology into these environments is seldom a trivial exercise. It’s also a reason why so many decision-makers prefer single-vendor stacks. Sure, standards have improved the situation immensely, but we’re still a far distance from a place where customization isn’t required.
ADVICE: In many ways, this limitation is aligned closely with cost. Complexity becomes less of an issue if you’re prepared to invest in the effort. If possible, put some funds exclusively for this exploratory work in your budget. Think about investing in a lab environment where ideas can be safely explored. Prototypes are a great way to win decision-makers over.
While both cost and complexity are largely quantitative metrics, there are a number of human factors that greatly influence IT decisions.
There is an unfortunate twist to our period of hyper-innovation. While we embrace and support it — we love new toys! — there’s a more sober component to new technology introduction that cannot be overlooked. It’s similar to that moment at a buffet when you know you’d like to try more, but you’re simply too full. Humans have a cap on the amount of new technology they are able to consume. Introduce too many new solutions and functions and they will be rejected.
This applies to system improvements too. Make too many far-reaching modifications and you risk a user rebellion. That’s a recipe for failure.
ADVICE: Leaders need to evaluate for their organization the pace at which new capabilities can be deployed. It’s probably a lot slower than we all think. Spend time to discuss different views with a variety of stakeholders. Analyze historical trends. Monitor usage as products get deployed. Over time it will become clear what the tipping point is. Your users will quickly let you know.
Our desire for change is often at odds with our need for things to remain the same. It has a lot to do with comfort and trust. We often like the things we know more than things that are new and unknown. There’s a reason we go back to that tried and tested Excel formula when we know we have the same capability in our latest ERP system. There’s a reason we continue to use email for seeking answers when our organizations have spent millions on elaborate knowledge management systems. There’s predictable value in legacy systems.
New technology often has to compete with these older solutions. For many of your users, you’ll need to pry them away from old applications kicking and screaming. In some instances resistance will be so fierce, you’ll be forced to concede.
As a consequence, legacy systems can present a limitation to the introduction of new technology. It may not happen at the time of deployment. It’s just as likely to happen at IT governance when the decisions are being made on what projects to invest in. A debate may ensue that argues in favor of the legacy solution and that will kill the new technology before it ever sees the light of day.
ADVICE: Really focus on the business case. Communicate it loud and clear. Make sure you have air-tight evidence for the return-on-investment (but recognize the need for a small number of leading-edge projects to move forward without all the evidence). Numbers talk, particularly dollars. Championing should come from many different leaders. Make a strong case, but ultimately respect the organizations choice.
Oh the joy of organizational politics! It should come as no surprise that politics plays an important role in IT decision-making. Sometimes it can be an asset. For example, escalating up a hierarchy to leverage leadership perspective can often be a good way of getting tough decisions made. But it can too often be a liability. For example, individual or team self-interest can result in vendor selections that don’t reflect evidence gained in requirements gathering.
Reconciling organizational and individual interests is a messy business. I imagine many of us can tell our own stories of how we observed decisions being made that had little basis in reasonable logic. We’d like to pretend it isn’t a factor, but all too often it is.
Negative organizational politics can hinder IT innovation. There is considerable value to the skill in those that can navigate within those constraints and turn them into a positive outcome.
ADVICE: Organizational politics shouldn’t be viewed as always being negative. It’s important to recognize the role it plays in the process of introducing new technology and then work to channel it into a positive force. Find out who your allies are and partner with them to help make a business case. Observe, listen and learn about your organizations dynamics. Make note of what works and what doesn’t and leverage that knowledge to navigate through the organizations politics. It’s not easy at all and an excellent skill for those that can master it.
These organizational constraints are presented not to suggest that new technology seldom gets introduced to the enterprise. Of course it does. The real effect of these limitations is that they slow the rate of introduction at a time when organizations face real consequences if they don’t innovate fast enough.
Recognizing and admitting that your organization has difficulty implementing new technology is the first step to fixing the problem. It could be one or more of these five reasons above or perhaps it’s something else. Most importantly, find out what it is and bake the fixes into your enterprise strategy. Your organization will be glad you did.
Just in case you were wondering, invisibility cloak research and prototyping is well underway. Just use your favorite search engine to look up the subject. You might be as surprised as I was.