Onward Technology Soldiers!

Advanced Technology Groups are the vanguard in the battle over early technology adoption.

Fix bayonets! For we are warriors for the future; soldiers of fortune who find riches in new technologies that few others are prepared to try. We are brave members of the Advanced Technology Group - an intrepid troop that seeks competitive advantage from the latest the IT has to offer. Alternatively, we are lemming-like creatures, hurling ourselves off the cutting-edge cliff of innovation and working out how we are going to land on the way down, as the wind whistles over our ears and we plummet to the surface below.

Two such contrasting views always appear within the CIO community in the powerful and polarizing debate on early technology adoption.

Most CIOs like to stand atop of that cliff, peering over the edge to see if the free-falling early adopters figure out how to land safely, expecting them to splat on impact. Any application or methodology that has not been taken out of the box and battered around a bit by someone else is not for them. This characteristic of caution is not necessarily a personal judgement about risk avoidance but usually a reflection of the corporate culture in which a CIO must exist. By contrast, innovators and early adopters - to borrow from the well-worn "Chasm" model of Intel's Geoffrey Moore - are the minority, as in all walks of life.

It is relatively simple to categorize CIOs and their technology groups into three types. Type A's are the 15 percent who will try a new technology before their competitors to see what edge they can get. The Type B contingent - the majority at some 65 percent - watches the A's either stuff it up or achieve success, and then consider their own options. The remainder are asleep in the C category, not recognizing or caring about a good technology even if it rode into town on a white charger with a halo atop.

It is easy to be evangelical, even romantic, about the need to innovate and use new technologies to improve business performance. Let's face it, the fun part of IT is the cool stuff the industry invents on almost a daily basis. We all appreciate the genius that creates technologies that range from hot-swapped, energy-saving blade servers to bright pink iPods that hold 40,000 variations of "doof-doof" music for the great unwashed.

Of course, life is neither easy nor romantic when faced with the challenge of implementing new ideas and technologies. All technology bright and shiny comes at a price. The product cost is one thing, but then there are all the add-ons, such as implementation, user-acceptance studies, training and change management, maintenance, recurring licence fees and so on. Dare I add, there is the opportunity cost, too; that is, you choose a loser to implement and miss the gizmo that actually gave your competitor and advantage over you. But then, you've got to play the game to win it.

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Investigate and Report

Bringing new technologies into an organization is actually tricky, which is why it brings out the conservative tendencies in most commercial cultures. That, however, is no excuse for not sticking your head over the trench and seeing what is out there. Unfortunately, most companies in Australia have no prescribed method for doing this in a meaningful way. Very few, save our biggest banks and a couple of miners and retailers, have anything that comes close to approaching an Advanced Technology Group (ATG), whose job is to investigate and report back on new innovations and their relevance to the business.

Many enterprises experiment with new technologies inside different teams in an IT group. The most popular community for this activity is the architecture group. It's not that they have nothing else to do, but if any technology is to be adopted then it would need to exist within the current IT eco-system of the enterprise. No one would know more about that than the architects. It's a safe option and one that is usually adopted by Type B organizations whose culture is rooted in conservatism. The architects' criteria can be pretty rigid about what can and cannot be supported - an attitude has helped create a reputation for IT guys having jobs that involve saying "no" a lot.

I know of one large Australian organization where the architects rule the roost in this sphere. They do not have a "no" mentality but struggle to articulate the benefits of new technologies to the business and, not surprisingly, complain about a lack of funding. They have an annoying problem currently. They have been successfully testing a new suite of application development tools for the past six months, but it is now trapped inside their group because their colleagues will not skill-up to adopt new and better practices. This is a classic example of trying but failing to do the right thing because there are no governance rules - or teeth - to enforce the recommendations of those investigating the potential of new technologies. It is a key reason why, especially in America, ATGs are springing up like spot fires in tinder-dry bush.

If forward-thinking companies have not embraced the ATG as a whole, they have gone part-way by forming a taskforce or committee that takes responsibility for looking at new technologies, and distributing responsibilities across domain experts inside the IT group. Two other common approaches are a formal expansion of the architecture group's role, so their work in this field is enshrined and cannot be dismissed easily by colleagues, or responsibility for watching the new technology radar falls to an individual, usually a Chief Technology Officer.

Activities inside an ATG need to be prescriptive to ensure they are not all dreaming of faraway days and what business will be like in 2020. The key elements in an ATG's existence are:

Scope: Always work within corporate objectives, industry direction and business process.

Track: Watch for new technologies but ensure this work is captured in a way that helps the business make sensible decisions.

Rank: Pick the winners and be able to explain the choices - that's what the business wants to hear.

Evaluate: Investigate areas where knowledge is sketchy and the business wants to deploy new technology.

Evangelize: No one else will do its PR, so an ATG must make sure it influences decisions on bringing technologies to production.

Transfer: Arguably the hardest but most important aspect of an ATG is transfer knowledge and responsibility for a technology to those who will develop the operational system.

Measurable Results

In many respects, working within an ATG is one of the most fun jobs around. You get to play with all the cool stuff. But it is no toyshop. These sorts of capers cost a lot of money, especially when run within an existing IT budget. The expense goes straight to the bottom line, so the group must produce measurable results.

A successful ATG will have a strict mandate. Its evaluation must adhere rigidly to a set of consistent, specified criteria that ensure a logical decision is made, rather than one inspired by personal preference, or even the desire to learn skills that progress careers (and that sort of nonsense happens a lot).

A substantial part of an ATG's existence must be to show the value of identifying projects that are low-hanging fruit - those that offer a big payback quickly with minimum risk. It must also flag unworthy projects and stay away from recommending initiatives that have a moderate payback. An ATG should focus on picking the winners, not those technologies that finish in the middle of the field.

By focusing on these elements of technology adoption, the IT department will further embrace its role as soldiers for fortune within their organization.

Mark Hollands is an Asia-Pacific vice president for the business and IT advisory company Gartner