It’s Not Technology That Is Holding Us Back

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During another week on the road (Zurich, Paris and Stuttgart this time) and after discussions with dozens of people at the conferences and meetings, I noticed a pattern that repeats itself again and again in technology driven companies. For the latest major digitalization technologies, such as big data, IoT and deep learning, I have observed the large technology companies respond. Interestingly, the incorporation and adoption of these technologies is treated as a technology problem. So, initiatives are kicked off to build infrastructure, build up competencies around the technology, architectures are designed, scalability is confirmed, etc.

The moment the first activities are underway, plans are requested detailing when which part of the technology stack will be available and ready for deployment, budget are estimated and, after the normal political hassles, resource allocations are approved and made available. Once this is in place, the normal project management follow-up takes place with project meetings, steering board meetings, etc. that are all tracking progress, following up on resources and finances and admiring the shiny demos of the technology that are shown by project members. And, at the end of each meeting, everyone basks in the glow of the bright future that the company can expect to have with all these exciting technologies becoming available.

In all this, there is one big glaring party missing: the customer. With all the focus on the technology, there is very little attention to the customer and the ways in which this technology is expected to add value to customers. Of course, there are a couple of dreamed up use cases, but these have never really been confirmed with customers. And as everyone keeps telling each other about these fabulous use cases that customers are just going to love, the use cases start to lead a life of their own and everyone in the company just knows that these use cases are the ones that are going to allow the company to disrupt the market.

Then, when the first early deployments with customers are getting ready to be put in operation, we notice the next stage: customers are not interested, the solution does not provide the promised benefits or the technology solves a non-existent problem. Initially, the lack of maturity of the solution is blamed and the company doubles down on its investments as the technology is viewed as strategic and critical for its future success. As the solution matures and the market adoption still is lackluster and fails to deliver on the inflated expectations, the belief in the technology in the organization starts to wane and the technology falls into the “trough of disillusionment”. The good news, however, is that by that time there will be some other cool, exciting technology on the horizon and the attention of everyone in the organization shifts to the next promising, cool thing. And before you know it, similar to a dog chasing shiny bumpers and getting distracted every time a new car with a shiny bumper appears, the organization runs off after the next thing.

The key lesson is that technology adoption is not about technology. Adopting a new technology is about innovation. It’s about finding the use cases where the new technology adds real, tangible value for customers. It’s about trying out dozens of different use cases and accepting that in the end, the majority of these will fail to deliver on the promise. And it’s about realizing that even though customers say they love the innovation and can’t wait to use it and promise to pay you good money for it, it’s about what customers do that really matters. The gap between espoused theory and theory in use is large and this is even more true when it comes to adopting new, exciting technologies.

The problem is that in many of the technology driven organizations that I work with, everyone has an engineering background and to a large extent believes in the mantra of “build it and they will come”. Consequently, the adoption and evolution of new technologies is viewed and treated as an engineering problem rather than an innovation and business development problem. Companies invest millions upon millions to build infrastructure, architectures and competencies without a single truly validated use case. We build fantastically strong foundations for businesses that may never realize.

Instead, we have to accept that it’s not about technology. It’s about the benefits we can offer to customers through the use of these new technologies. And it’s our customers that are the judges of what is beneficial to them. So, instead of building the foundations, we should build dozens of use cases with the ricketiest, scrappiest, duct tape and bailing wire technology solutions below them. Then we verify whether customers actually do with our solutions what they said they would do. And only in the minority of cases where this turns out to be the case do we strengthen, productify and scale the technology basis below.

Concluding, adopting new technologies is not about technology, infrastructure, architectures or competencies. Every technology oriented company that I know and work with is able to solve the most complex and exciting technology problems. It is the innovation processes that are the weak spot: going out with a rickety prototype to a customer to verify that it indeed solves a real problem is something that technology companies find incredibly difficult. However, if a solution solves a real problem, customers will use it no matter how scrappy it is. And if it doesn’t solve a real problem, customers will not use it no matter how glossy and shiny the solution. So, accept that it’s not technology that is holding us back; it’s the lack of an experimentation and innovation culture that is the real problem.

Academic, angel investor, board member and advisor working on the boundary of business and (software) technology