Pilot Pathology

Pilot Pathology

If you can't easily scale a pilot technology, don't bother installing it in the first place.

A global financial services firm - you probably have this company's card in your wallet - has an amazing track record with its technology pilots. They almost never fail.

Great IT management? Hardly. That amazing track record comes with a catch: only a tiny fraction of those pilots are successfully deployed throughout the enterprise. The company is littered with expensive "mini-me" implementations: software, hardware, networks and apps that work perfectly well in their designated guinea-pig departments but virtually nowhere else.

Most of these pilots - including a not quite expert system for fraud detection and a data mart for CRM - did not live beyond a year or two. And those that did have become subject to perennial budget battles over who should pay to maintain them. Ugly.

This pathology of IT pilots is as global as IT innovation itself. The corporate landscapes of Fortune 1000 firms are cluttered with the digital bones of IT pilots that couldn't, wouldn't or shouldn't scale. Indeed, too many pilots are designed with scaling as the last thing in mind. Companies focus on making their pilots more workable than scalable. In other words, they optimise the pilots' success at the expense of optimising the knowledge necessary to cost-effectively scale. The pilots become an end, not a means.

This economic dysfunction exists for completely logical reasons. The most important is that nobody likes failure. When a company spends real dollars and man-hours on a database or CRM pilot, it doesn't want to declare that investment a waste. So companies try to make sure the pilot "works". IT and the designated department will do whatever it takes to ensure the benefits of the pilot exceed its cost.

Which naturally leads to the next reason: to guarantee that the pilot succeeds, IT and its designated department conspire to have it solve some unique set of business problems. These problems tend to be so localised and specialised that they require more customisation than standardisation. Guess what's more expensive to scale?

At the aforementioned global financial services firm, departments worldwide have superb point solutions to their particular problems. But in reality, the company's approach has generated diseconomies of scale that wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in less than a decade.

Pilots that run without scalability as a priority aren't IT projects; they're research. There's nothing wrong with doing research on innovative IT offerings. However, let's make sure the vendors - not the shareholders and employees - are paying their fair share for it.

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