04 Aug Why are you buying technology?
Nobody will ever admit to buying technology for technology’s sake. And yet a visiting space alien that is watching most companies acquire and deploy technology could be forgiven for believing that’s what most of us are doing. We put almost all our energy into specifying, acquiring and implementing the technology and almost none of our energy into assessing and preparing the organizations that it is supposed to serve. From the way we allocate our energy and attention, it would seem we believe technology is some kind of intractable magic dust. If we can sprinkle it across our businesses just right it will magically resolve any difficulty.
Imagine the following scenario. You want to create a new position in your organization. You write a position description. You interview a number of candidates. You negotiate compensation and start date. But you never tell anybody else about this new position or the person you’ve hired. You don’t identify where they’ll be located in your offices. You never describe how this position is expected to work with any other function in the organization and never do any orientation when the person arrives. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? And yet that’s exactly how we bring technology into our organizations all the time.
All the requirements, specifications and project management in the world won’t help an organization that’s just not ready for the technology in the first place. From the personal computer to cell phones and personal digital assistants to the Internet, there has been a deafening roar of change swirling around technology. We can all be forgiven for assuming technology is all that’s needed. But that’s not true. Real change happens when people change how they work, not when the technology changes. Think beta video or eight-track tape. Anybody remember how long compact disc technology wandered in the wilderness before finding real acceptance as a mode of storage?
In other columns I’ve mentioned Eric Brynjolfsson’s work which suggests companies getting the most value from IT spend as much as $10 in complementary investments for every technology dollar they spend to get the results they expect. I brought that up in the context of valuing IT, but it also applies in the day-to-day activities of selecting, designing, implementing and rolling out technology. There are some obvious places to look for those complementary investments. Training and documentation are two places most companies start. However, if you’re buying technology to have an impact on your business, not just to keep your technologists, trainers and writers busy, there are some other areas you should pay attention to.
Business relationships – The vendor says that shiny new accounting package will reduce accounts payable/receivable costs by 30 percent. That’s a good thing – unless the new package doesn’t support the kinds of interactions with vendors that got you discounts on most of your contracts or doesn’t support the kind of customized billing your clients have come to expect. Functional requirements tell you what a package is supposed to do. Understanding how people work in your organization and how that will need to change tells you whether you care about the functional requirements.
Information management – That new RFID inventory management application tracks individual items in and out of the warehouse. Unfortunately, nobody at the warehouse has ever paid attention to anything smaller than a pallet, and now they’re overwhelmed by the flood of information. People develop complex and idiosyncratic relationships with the information they use to do their jobs. Technology almost always changes those relationships. Getting the most out of the technology dollars requires as much preparation of the people as of the technology.
Business process – An upgraded network, electronic knowledge base and centralized order taking in the Wichita office saves millions in staff costs. Unfortunately an undocumented step in the order process requires on-site presence, which can only be replicated with expensive digital cameras and training for a reluctant and suddenly understaffed sales force. Our business relationship and information management habits settle into processes, some formal and some informal. New technology will have some impact on those processes, both formal and informal. Are you doing as much to prepare, manage and measure the processes as you are to prepare, manage and measure the technology?
This isn’t about better requirements analysis. It’s about understanding how you want your organization to be impacted by technology and working with your organization to get that result. It’s perfectly reasonable to say you don’t want technology driving your business. It’s not so reasonable to purchase technology for a specific business purpose and yet expect no impact on how that business is conducted. You wouldn’t move your business into a new location without looking at the process, personnel, business relationship and customer impacts. Don’t move your business into a new technology without the same kind of considerations.
Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and program development consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via the e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.