When Technology Obscures Business Needs

Technology, applied strategically, can be an enabler.  An individual will find a particular need – productivity, sharing, efficiency, what have you – and identify a technology to help diminish the need.  There can come a time though – and particularly with IT teams – where technology is deployed so as to complicate rather than enhance.  I was talking with someone recently whose organization has had a sudden increase in these sort of IT projects, and they become distractions.

The latest example was the rollout by IT of a new chat system.  It’s the sort of app that I think is great – open source, cloud-based – but every app has its place.  This organization has already made a commitment to using Microsoft’s Skype.  Literally everyone uses it and the organization has a number of remote workers, so it is the primary communication channel with co-workers.  Because it’s also tied to the staff phones, the company is paying for business-level Skype.  What’s the strategic thinking behind the new app?

What’s Your Strategy?

In other words, this company has no need for a second chat system.  There’s no strategic need for it.  There’s no senior management championing of an alternate solution or need.  There’s already an investment in time, training, familiarity, and dollars in a competing product.  Why would any IT team try to insert something new into the mix?

Harvard Business Review had a good piece on the costs of implementing new technology back in 1985.  A quick read through shows some of the things that go missing when IT becomes the origin of new technology:

  • where is the definition of need by the business, the strategic question?  If there’s no need, why do it?
  • where is the interaction with the staff who will use the technology?  If there isn’t any, how can you know whether the potential need even exists, or whether they have a suitable tool already?  In this case, the company has made an overt investment in an alternative.  But in many organizations, staff will have found their own tools without the IT team’s involvement, and the only benefit from a new tool is going to accrue to the IT team, not the staff.
  • where is senior management?  Even if the IT team is lead by a C-level, senior manager, it shouldn’t be the source for staff-facing technology.  But senior management should, at some point, understand the purpose of the new technology and be able to explain to their staff how it fits into the strategic direction – better delivery, better service – of the organization.

Here’s a more up to date piece hitting the same essentials.  These are fundamentals:  if there’s no business need, there’s no need.  If the only owner of new technology is IT, then IT had better have the need for it.

Not Invented Here

The chat function is just the latest in a slew of new technology that has been released at this organization in the past year.  Which isn’t surprising, because when I spoke with this person about a year ago, the company had just brought on a new technology lead (IT director, whatever).  In my experience, it is common new hire wisdom to do a couple of things:

  • wait X months (often 6 or 12, arbitrarily) before making any big changes
  • identify the low hanging fruit and create some quick wins

To be frank, I’m not entirely sold on either concept.  They’re what managers say to people they’ve hired, and they’re safe, but they’re not always accurate in any given environment.  Sometimes you need to move fast to right a ship, and sometimes quick wins end up doing more damage than not.  And sometimes the person hiring you will have no idea – or will not have imparted – to you exactly the nature of challenges you’re going to face.  Especially with technology, you need to not only have a quick way to identify a need, but also a team who can quickly implement and support it.  It may not be apparent whether the quick technology win has failed for some months.

But a recurring theme in the IT delivery area seems to be to roll out technology without necessarily having a business need for it.  An interesting alternative to that is when IT is told there’s a need, rolls out a technology, and then finds there’s no business unit to own it.  That’s less the IT director’s fault and more to do with poor senior leadership, although the IT director is going to eat the failure in the end.

In a way it makes sense.  More technology means more IT budget, and justification of technology staff roles, particularly of the newly hired.  IT is known for a focus on replacing software that is not invented here.  Why buy COTS like Microsoft Skype when we can spin up production and staging servers and run our own open source software to do the same thing?  I’m a huge fan of open source, but the time to make this decision is before committing to the commercial app or after the decision has been made to migrate away from the commercial app.

In this case, the new IT director seems to have embraced two concepts.  One, let’s do things.  Two, let’s do things our way.  The first thing that came along was a file-sharing tool.  The staff would upload a file, the client would download it.  And there are literally hundreds of free and paid services to do this.  Some staff were already using Dropbox, or Microsoft OneDrive, and sharing a link.

Better?  How about surveying staff to see what they’re using and having senior management invest in one so as to standardize and enable better training and consistency?

The next release was a wiki.  Because collaboration.  The file-sharing tool didn’t really need it but there was no training on the wiki.  Nor an obvious reason to use it.  Unsurprisingly, the software named for being fast fast is in fact slow slow.  Staff, lacking any real understanding of what it was for, have started uploading Word documents to the site rather than using the easy to use editing and versioning features that it provides.  All staff already VPN into the corporate network and have a variety of file shares where they are already able to share documents if they need to.

Better?  Why not leverage the network file shares that people are already using to create a central place to share these sorts of documents, which may just be shortcuts linking back to where the original lives? or leverage some other tool in which the company has invested and in which staff are adept?  This company is no laggard with technology and staff spend huge amounts of time working with Basecamp; if there’s a need, why not leverage the Basecamp document/file functions?

Now the chat feature.  To me, this is perhaps the saddest.  Chat is one of the easiest things to do.  Even if the company hadn’t already invested in Microsoft Skype, and had chat inside Basecamp as well, spinning up a chat server is probably the lowest value option in these days of secure, hosted messaging.

Technology Failure

There’s clearly a senior management failure here.  Either the senior management is disengaged or it isn’t aware of what its role is in overseeing corporate technology.  I expect this is common when a company’s IT needs expand, and there’s a feeling that, once a person is hired, that person is responsible for everything.  But there remains the business need aspect in this.  Someone needs to be defining that.  IT leaders can do that, but then some business unit or staff or management has to accept long term ownership over whatever that choice is.  Otherwise it’s technology for technology’s sake.

Worse, the IT director appears to be building a competing set of technologies and putting staff in the position of having to determine what to use.  A corporate commitment to one or the other, for the purposes of cost-savings, standardization, efficiency, eliminates this choice for staff.  Without that commitment, the IT team’s new services and servers create confusion, further splinter choices that have been made, and don’t necessarily meet any need.  I’ve sat in a number of meetings at year end where the IT team is surprised at the lack of adoption of an intranet, or a SharePoint service, and no-one else is.  People either are doing it a different way or they’re not in need of the service at all.

Technology can have huge benefits.  A failure to identify the needs before choosing the tool can be fatal, and can hide real needs and cause real confusion.




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David Whelan
I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.