Reproduction permitted for personal use only. For reprints and reprint permission, contact

Lightweight technologies create an Incumbents’ Dilemma for CIOs

Lightweight technologies are transforming equations in both the tech industry and every IT organization. A lightweight technology is one based on creating value through Internet based services. The Cloud, Mobile Solutions, Apps, SaaS, PaaS, IaaS are all examples of these technologies. These lightweight technologies represent more than a substitute or alternative to traditional IT. They represent a disruptive technology that when it enters the market upsets the traditional balance between price, performance and value described in Clayton Christensen‘s work around the Innovator’s Dilemma.

A characteristic of a dilemma is that it presents an obvious choice that looks to be the right decision but can easily result in pursuing the wrong direction for all the right reasons.

Christensen’s work illustrates how this happens in terms of an organization’s market response to disruptive innovation where the decision to leave a low margin business to the innovator makes sense until every market becomes a low margin market leaving the organization with a high cost margin structure in a commodity margin market. Christensen explained how ASUS has done this to Dell and other examples.

The incumbent’s dilemma follows the same logic, but applied to their internal operations that invert the way you look at the situation. Incumbent seeks retreat form high margin costs by replacing them with disruptive products and services — in the case of IT these lightweight technologies. On the surface it seems like a no brain decision with adoption of lightweight technologies limited only by concerns about security, integrity or functionality — all of which may not be fully capable compared to in house operations.

Sound familiar?
Right now lighter weight technologies are currently disrupting traditional IT from the bottom and they are moving up. Staring with low value/low margin IT services like storage and hosting, these technologies are disrupting the foundation of many IT organizations. Mobile apps and SaaS are dong the same to the application space providing lighter weight solutions that do not have the power of traditional solutions, but are good enough to represent a viable choice that displaces incumbent solutions

Individually the right decision, collectively the wrong direction

CFO’s will fall into the same trap as the CMO when they pursue reducing their costs through blindly adopting lightweight technologies based solely on cost and performance criteria. The individually right decision, for example to move to cloud storage or cloud hosting, can set the company on the wrong direction. Not because these services are wrong, or necessarily damaging, but because of how we compensate for market based solutions.

We have seen this before.

Remember when we were all warned that ERP packages in general and SAP in particular were going to compromise our sources of competitive advantage. A number of very smart people predicted that would happen as core business processes collapsed around a single industry standard.

So what did we do?

We went ahead and implemented the ERP. After all it was a sound business decision as package ERP looked cheaper to acquire and operate than the homegrown applications, which needed to be replaced anyway in the face of Y2K.

A decision that made sense until…

We then customized and configured ERP configuration in the name of retaining competitive advantage. Even though we were warned about the cost of modifications and customizations, we did it anyway.

The result is that rather than creating a cost effective market-based asset supporting processes that reflect general industry best practices …

… we have an asset that sits somewhere in between.

A generic based asset that needs to be upgraded on a vendor determined schedule. But an asset customized to the degree that it consumers more resources and requires complex upgrade.

So we made a decision to go corporate ERP to be lower cost and tap into a vendor’s investment in new solutions. But we wound up with a more expensive asset that ties up resources that would otherwise go to innovation and growth project.

The dilema facing incumbents is changing

Lightweight technologies post a similar dilemma as the case for quick adoption and a low cost of entry creates the sense that it is a good decision. And it can be provided that we keep the incumbent’s dilemma in mind. CIOs should not just ceded the lower part of their ‘market space’ without thinking about what that does to long-term plans and long tail activities.

To date, the incumbent’s dilemma has been largely hardware centric. Consumerization based disruptions have revolved around brining your own device (BYOD) to work. Handling that form of disruption has been relatively simple and just as Christensen predicted. CIOs are abandoning a low margin, high resource, and high friction activity – procurement and provisioning – replacing it with standards, remote wiping facilities, etc. Believe it or not, that dilemma is relatively easy to resolve and reflects an answer for very valid reasons.

However, is leaving a low margin, high resource, high friction market always the best decision?

Consider the type of disruption going on now. What was hardware disruption is shifting quickly to software creating a new term BMOA or Bring My Own Apps. Should CIOs pursue the same course of action as BYOD?

Some would say yes, ‘after all the apps that people are buying are at the fringe of the stack. They are information consumption applications that require either little or no connection to corporate systems. We cannot possibly support all the permutations, so let the market do that work for us. We will focus our scarce resources on the applications and areas that matter, where there are high operational requirements and the business needs the type of innovation that only we can provide. That is our strategy.

Sound familiar?

What do you think?

Recent columns by Mark McDonald

Mark McDonald is a group vice president and head of research for Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-Author of the The Social Organization: how to use social media to tap the collective genius of your customers and employees. He also writes a blog on the Gartner Blog Network.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Rob O'Keefe responded 3 years ago: #1

Your description of the evolution of ERP is exactly what has happened in our company (and industry). While you only used it as an example, I'm curious if could share what you see as the future for ERP systems. We need the functionality, but hate the one-size-fits-all that leads to expensive customization and vendor lock-in.

Rob O'Keefe
OEM Fabricators, Inc.

-Add Your Comment


Comment Policy: WTN News accepts comments that are on-topic and do not contain advertisements, profanity or personal attacks. Comments represent the views of the individuals who post them and do not necessarily represent the views of WTN Media or our partners, advertisers, or sources. Comments are moderated and are not immediately posted. Your email address will not be posted.

WTN Media cannot accept liability for the content of comments posted here or verify their accuracy. If you believe this comment section is being abused, contact

WTN InGroup
FusionCIO InGroup
SupraNet Communications

-More Stories

WTN Media Presents