“Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity”–Henry Hartman
I have an acquaintance that works in the news business. He recently bemoaned how lazy most reporters have become in the current age of instant information and in a world where political parties, special interest groups and others send them a generous dose of “talking points” daily. “Most don’t spend time doing the hard work of investigative reporting anymore,” he said. “They don’t search for the facts themselves. They have become lazy.”
In my last post on Leading When You are Not in Control, I wrote about the importance of maintaining ones technical proficiency. For today’s CIOs and IT leaders maintaining technical proficiency increasingly means understanding the wealth of emerging new technologies and the application of these and how they fit, either now or in the future, into the workplace in general and your organization specifically. Too often we are tempted to give the same old worn out excuses for why the latest or most promising innovations won’t work in our organization instead of doing the necessary homework to learn the facts. As leaders you must set the tone with your organization.
When the iPad hit the market I bought one of the first ones (so did my CEO!). Shortly after receiving them and having some time to check them out we had a lengthy conversation about some of the possible uses, especially in sales and in the booths we set up at medical conferences. Several of our sales people were also early iPad customers and also grasped the potential. When I asked some of my staff to check it out I immediately got the usual. “It’s a consumer device.” “It isn’t robust” (whatever that means). “It isn’t secure” (the standard objection when you don’t know what else to say). “How do you know?,” I asked given that I was the only person in the room who actually owned and had used one. I instructed them to go to the Apple Store which was less than a quarter mile from our office, buy a couple of them, and check them out (more about this exercise later).
New technologies, especially disruptive ones, have caused rigid, process-oriented organizations, which describe most IT organizations, problems for years. In the 1980s many organizations attempted to address the whole innovation issue by implementing “Advanced Technology Groups (ATGs).” Now doubt some of these were successful but many were not. The reason? Most often they pursued the wrong things. Instead on looking at potentially groundbreaking, transformative technologies, they tended to keep a very narrow, inward focus on things that would fit into their “standards” or “architecture.” Disruptive innovations are usually not respecters of convention. That is why they are disruptive. In the end we had ATGs that focused on and recommended such winners as OS2 and Vax Stations (anyone remember those two?).
In the work I do now with start-up companies we place a great deal of effort, both on the start-up side and on the funding side, in the area of due diligence. Basically doing your homework. Is there a market? If so, how big is it? Who are your competitors? Can your intellectually property be protected? How much funding will you really need? Can the product be manufactured at scale at a reasonable cost? You get the message. Before someone starts a company or before an investor puts money into that company there is a lot of up front homework that must be done. It is the same with advances in technology. CIOs and IT leaders simply must do the hard work of due diligence to get the facts. You can’t be lazy like the reporters my acquaintance complained about. If you don’t do your homework someone else in your organization will and you will come out looking foolish, or worse. The ability to objectively and critically evaluate emerging technologies may be the single most important technical skill CIOs need in the years ahead.
So, how does one go about developing or improving these skills both personally and within your organization? Let me suggest two broad areas of focus along with some specific actions.
First, learn to spot potential opportunities. One very important point here, I am not suggesting that each and every new product or technology is worth expending resources to evaluate. The key is to be able to sort out potential winners by evaluating them against criteria that are meaningful for your organization and the business you are in. Knowledge of your business, your company’s strategy, the competitive forces impacting you and your customer’s “pain points” are critical for doing this evaluation well. Remember, this is about the USE of technology, not about the technology itself. The technology can be very cool, but totally useless.
Here are a few suggestions:
- 1. Read with an open mind. Read a variety of professional and non-professional publications. Stay abreast of what is happening in the larger world, especially with regards to trends impacting your industry, market and customers. Take time to think creatively about possibilities. It was the light weight, small size, long battery life and multimedia capabilities of the iPad that sparked our interest in using it as a sales and educational tool. The fact that it was made by Apple (we don’t have any Macs) and didn’t support Flash was irrelevant to us. We could work around that.
- 2. Observe and ask questions. How do people in your company actually get work done? What are their pain points? When was the last time you took a road trip with one of your company’s sales reps? During my years as a CIO I used to make what I called “screen rounds,” the terminology originating from my medical training where medical teams made daily “rounds” to see patients in the hospital. I would simply make time to walk around the building speaking to people and looking to see what was on their screens. How did they actually use their computer to get their work done? What applications did they most frequently use? What problems were they having? You can learn a lot from simply walking around, observing and asking questions. It is time well spent.
- 3. Consider forming an internal advisory board. Many of us have participated in advisory boards for companies so why not have an internal one comprised of key people from within your company? I have done this and find that, if you approach it with an open mind and listen to and act on what you learn, these can be extremely valuable. The input will help you better understand the real challenges and opportunities and the participation by business colleagues is a great way to build better working relationships.
- 4. Think like an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs find a problem or opportunity that excites them, pursue it with passion and take risks to be successful. We need more entrepreneurs in IT leadership.
Second, be proactive with what you learn. Do something! As we said earlier, the objective is not to implement every new technology that crosses your path, or to even evaluate them all. The objective is to thoughtfully pick potential winners and then invest time and energy in them. Not all will be successful. Realize this up front.
Here are a few ideas to consider:
- 1. Partner with key business colleagues who stand to benefit. In the iPad example, we partnered with a very motivated team from the sales organization. Your objective should not be the implementation or rejection of a particular technology but on making your colleagues successful. If you focus on that, you will make the right decisions.
- 2. See if you can set aside some funds for an innovation fund. Run it with a “board” of IT and business people, perhaps the advisory board I spoke of earlier. The key here is to provide some “seed” money to fund initial research on promising innovations. In the iPad example I provided the initial funds to purchase the devices for evaluation.
- 3. Set clear objectives for evaluations based on what you need to accomplish. In the iPad evaluation we wanted our sales reps to be able to use these in the field and at conferences. I gave the evaluation team four questions to answer: 1) Can we connect securely to our network from remote locations via VPN? 2) Can we secure the content on the device? 3) Can it handle e-mail and calendaring? 4) Can we push content to the device remotely and also delete content remotely? These were basic things we needed to know. Not being able to do one or more wouldn’t necessarily disqualify the device but it would give us facts to work with and clarify our options.
- 4. Finally, accept or reject based on empirical data, not opinions. Be objective.
We are entering an exciting and potentially disruptive time for IT organizations. The future will belong to the prepared. Be prepared. Do your homework!