How Technology Becomes Misused
Got a problem?
Technology has an answer. But is it the right one?
That’s a difficult question to evaluate for most leaders who are weighing the purchase and implementation of a costly information technology project as a panacea for the problem du jour.
It’s tempting to buy a software and/or hardware solution — especially if it’s being aggressively and convincingly sold — then wait for the pain to go away, much the way we expect magic from medicine.
Too often, though, technology fails to generate the desired results. Worse yet, technology can become the Trojan Horse that distracts leaders from even more critical issues that hold the key to progress.
Technology works well if key business issues are addressed — like power, ego, expectations and capability. However, these issues take courage and energy to address. This explains the human inclination to project solutions onto things — rather than onto oneself. This approach rarely works, and the results can be extreme, leading to failed technology projects, wasted time and wasted money.
Misdirected technology solutions hurt companies — large and small — everywhere in the world. The following stories come from two real-life examples.
Problem Avoidance at a Large Company
Top execs at a large firm with a non-sharing culture were convinced that their various divisions could cross sell at a higher rate.
After discussing how failure to share information had limited their power and revenue capabilities, instead of discussing core issues like the power and revenue consequences from their failure to share information, the firm created a “knowledge management portal” that generated proposals. It was supposed to save thousands of hours, reduce the cost per proposal generated and increase response time.
The managers invested tens of millions of dollars and issued a few decrees to launch it. Expectations were high that a new day had dawned.
However, nothing was done to address the core issue that had blocked revenue sharing initiatives — the lack of trust in the ranks. A few years into it, the grumbling grew. Things had not improved.
In fact, a technology effectiveness audit showed that fewer than 10 people in a firm of tens of thousands used the product to share knowledge and churn out proposals as the inventors had intended. The sunk costs are the least of the problems.
The greatest casualty is the overall performance and opportunity cost to the firm. With the right courage the firm could have moved to a healthier space in the marketplace. Had the paralyzing “people issues” been addressed, technology could have made a huge difference. Instead, they wasted years on a project that swept the problem under a rug, allowing people to initially say, “Well, we’ve got that one covered by this technology project.” Later, they said, “Once we get in some more/better technology, the problem will go away.”
Hiding Hiring/Firing Errors with Technology
One common issue small business owners face is hiring too soon and firing too late. Technology can exacerbate this problem.
Take, for example, a firm that hired the owner’s poorly qualified friend for a pivotal position. Soon, it was clear that the person was incompetent and needed to be replaced.
Rather than confronting the issue directly, the owner decided to invest in a new technology program that would cost thousands of dollars, considerable executive time and attention, and the usual technology angst and learning curve.
Before they knew it, this company became a prime example of the “law of doubles and halves,” which states that technology projects take twice as long, cost twice as much, and have half the impact as originally intended.
For small firms, diverting time and attention from real issues is never a good idea. The sponsor, in this case, knew deep down that that the project would not solve the core issue — which was the inappropriate hire of an unqualified friend.
Three Steps to Wise Technology Choices
To avoid making these — or similar — mistakes, it’s helpful to follow these three steps:
- Step #1: Don’t lose the battle before it is fought.
Take a step back from technology before investing. Look at the underlying goals, the real issues. Are you really pursuing performance enhancement in the best way possible? Do your people have the motivation and the capability to put this new technology to great use? The key to technology is “winning the battle before it is fought.” What better way than to dismiss all battles that cannot be won — or that you have a low probability of winning?Remember: technology can enhance people, but it is very rare that technology changes people. In an analogous situation, would a home workout machine turn a couch potato into Mr. Atlas?
- Step #2: Measure at T+60.
Technology feedback loops are vague and slow. Usually firms celebrate the initiation of an idea and the “launch,” then expect the results to just roll in. What they do not look at is the “T+60” profile, which refers to how people are using the product after the initial infatuation has passed. By overlooking this critical juncture, firms miss an opportunity to adjust, adapt and advance.Seasoned technology executives report that 90 percent of technology projects that go “live” in an organization will failto have the desired business impact.Catching this tendency early may be your last, best hope at making a technology initiative pay off. Once technology is rejected by the nervous system of an organization, there is very little that can be done to revive a project. As a result of this failure, discontent resurfaces because the same problems persist. By then, people have dug into their technology trenches, and removing the technology becomes as painful a prospect as pulling a tooth.
- Step #3: Focus on “difference makers.”
Consider a technology effectiveness audit to see what technology is a “difference maker.” For each technology, there are a few key ratios that would make the greatest impact on the company. These represent that strategic intent of the technology project. A technology audit distills usage statistics into a few, clear, simple ratios. Any executive can then review these ratios to measure the effectiveness of the technology. For example, in the large company example above, the hours saved, cost-per-proposal generated and response time were translated into ratios compared to the baseline (paper-based) process that had been formerly used.An audit allows you to identify, clear out and retire distracting or cluttering technologies. This is not about saving hard drive space. It is about knowing what monstrous problems were not slain by technology projects, and how maximum efficiency can be achieved.
In many cases, the first step taken by a new CIO is to cut away all the technology that is not needed by the firm. Then, his or her focus is on strategic initiatives driving the agenda.
Technology is a great source of power and leverage — if it is used appropriately. When considering how technology can give you peak performance, recognize that you are taking a risk. Make sure that you are not to concealing core issues behind the veil of new technology. By getting to the bottom of the problem, finding measurable results, and auditing projects, firms can learn a great deal about how fit they really are, and compete with the best.