Fitting Disruptive Technologies into Your Strategy


Determining if a disruptive technology yields enormous benefits or turns out to be an expensive waste of time.


E-mail. Phone calls. Text messages. Instant Messages. Facebook. Twitter. Impromptu meetings. Assorted emergencies. Disruptions to one’s workday are a fact of life.

Your organization is also being bombarded with a steady, never-ending stream of disruptive new technologies –- advances that promise dramatic benefits in terms of cost, efficiency and productivity.

Often these advances do just that. PCs, laptops, networks (wired and especially wireless), mobile devices, and, even cloud computing were all dismissed by many during their early disruptive days.

And it’s easy to see why. Disruption means added costs in terms of education, integration, and often reliability. Ignoring a disruption is usually easier than embracing it.

But all of the great technologies that we heavily depend on today, started out as disruptions. Ultimately, they re-defined how we do business and brought enormous benefits to organizations of all sizes and types.

Disruptions in technologies are certain. The key challenge is deciphering what may be ‘the next big thing.’ While this may seem like a game of chance, here’s how to determine if a disruptive technology will yield enormous benefits or turn out to be an expensive waste of time.

And technology type doesn’t matter. IT still needs to execute consistently and reliably, with cost-effective operations and predictability. Disrupt these and you fail.

The stakes are clearly high. It’s important to start with a quick reality check. If the mission of IT is to carefully and consistently align with the overall goals of the business, then how can a given disruption benefit the organization?

Here’s the key point: More often than not, the answer is not obvious. Disruptions are always risks.

Disruptive technologies can be marvelously tantalizing, but years can go by before they’re ready for prime time. Or they might fizzle out altogether.

Disruptive technologies must be examined and evaluated with a little bit of skepticism. Seldom does Release 1.0 achieve the promise inherent in early-stage marketing. Sustainability depends on a wide variety of factors beyond the potential recognized in any individual IT shop.

Whether a given technology is disruptive or not, is never an absolute.

Some organizations will find that a disruptive technology plays a pivotal role in their ultimate success. Others may discard that same technology as unworkable and unproductive.

Disruptions are not necessarily trends. It takes a lot of time before successful, influential disruptions achieve that status.

Complicating things even further is the fact that individual vendor implementations vary widely in capabilities and benefits.

This adds to the significant degree of risk that always exists in the adoption of any disruptive technology. The degree to which that risk is acceptable involves complex decisions often made under a very high degree of uncertainty. The risks to IT and organizational success, and even individual careers, are enormous.

With all of this said, what is the best way to deal with disruptive technologies?

First, perform an initial coarse-grained evaluation of the alignment between IT and overall organizational goals. Ask these questions:

  • Does the disruption fit into the comprehensive strategic business plan?
  • Can the cost and economic benefits be determined?

This process will yield an initial go/no-go decision. And by the way, a no-go is seldom final. Technologies initially bypassed often return as they mature and provide solid, quantifiable answers to these questions.

But the most important piece of advice? Never, ever compromise mission for innovation.

For technologies that make the first cut, the next step is at least some informal hands-on evaluation.

Many IT organizations have units within them called ‘Planning,’ or ‘Advanced Technologies,’ or ‘Innovation Labs.’

These small, technical groups specialize in trying out new products and processes. They learn what these technologies can really do. Very importantly, they discover limitations that the supplier’s marketing department might have glossed over. Be aware, there’s no production use at this point -- the key goal is to see what works and what doesn’t, and to begin mapping features into benefits.

Assuming the disruptive technology provides a quantifiable advance over current technologies and operations, the next step is a pilot deployment. It’s seldom desirable, even for the most aggressive early adopter, to put an innovation into broad production without at least some testing and evaluation with a small group of real users.

Assuming benefits at that point can be quantified and the disruption truly represents a sufficient advance over what’s currently in operation, then and only then can full production commence.

It’s also always a good idea to stay in regular contact with key vendors. Equipment, software, and service providers are usually happy to have the opportunity to brief key customers (often under a confidentiality agreement, of course) as to new developments and directions, obtaining feedback, end-user requests, and perhaps a sale. Such dialog regardless helps to lessen the concerns that come with disruptions, and can simplify the overall planning and rollout process.

The bottom line: What is clearly a disruption that ultimately becomes a meaningful, sustainable and valuable innovation can rarely be determined during the disruptive early days.

Some uncertainly and ambiguity is essential. But a structured, measured process for evaluation and integration is the best way to take advantage of disruptions in the long run.

C.J. Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a leading advisory firm specializing in wireless and mobile technologies, products, services, and systems.

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