Early Adopters' Secrets For Success With New Tech

CIOs from Virgin America, Vail Resorts, Genentech and The Dannon Company, all early adopters of new technologies, share their secrets for choosing which emerging tech is right for their companies and rolling it out successfully.

There have been early adopters—and laggards—probably for as long as there has been new technology. Surely, when the first wheel was rolled out in 3000 B.C., just a handful of Mesopotamians had enough insight and risk tolerance to give it a whirl while others looked on from a safe distance.

Not much has changed. That brave soul willing to embrace The New still sits in the same spot on the bell curve that Everett Rogers drew up back in 1962 to denote what he called the "diffusion of innovation"—just after the innovator but well before the early majority, the late majority and the laggards.

But within corporate IT, watching early adopters as they stumble isn't necessarily the safest course anymore. The pace of technology change has increased so much that corporate IT leaders who don't embrace emerging trends at some level risk ending up behind the competition. Gartner produced 70 "hype cycle" documents (analyses of new technology adoption trends) covering 1,500 new technologies last year. What's more, it's easier than ever to take new technologies for a test drive.

"Sometimes you can do it in your office in an afternoon," says Matt Brown, a principal analyst and research director with Forrester Research. "You can set up accounts and test out some new collaborative technology in a matter of hours before making a full commitment to it." Some emerging technologies, such as Google Apps, the iPhone and many open-source applications, don't even require a full enterprisewide rollout—at least not in the old, big-bang fashion—to get real value out of their implementation. Then there's the fact that anyone, not just people in the IT department, can, and will, try out the latest tools, whether or not CIOs sanction them.

Adoption of new technologies has spiked as IT has evolved from the complex tools, centralized systems and transaction-based software to the lightweight tools, abundant information and ubiquitous network-centric software that's taking over the marketplace today, says Brown. As a result, early adoption of emerging technology is no longer limited to tech-centric companies or those with pockets deep enough to absorb the risk. CIOs in industries ranging from health care to car manufacturing see piloting and testing lesser-proven technologies as a critical part of their role.

"Ten years ago, CIOs spent a lot of time getting transactional systems—the giant stuff—in place. But that's not so much the job anymore," says Robert Urwiler, CIO of Vail Resorts. "CIOs have more freedom to explore innovative ways to provide business transformation and more freedom to look around at emerging technologies. I feel like I have an obligation to do that." If Rogers were to revisit the idea of early adoption in IT in 2008, that classical distribution curve might not look so bell-shaped anymore.

But none of this means early adoption can't be difficult and costly if it isn't managed well. Four CIOs who have mastered the art of early adoption today share methods that work for selling new technology to the business, for creating repeatable processes to shepherd new ideas into practice, for determining the potential benefit of new systems and for creating flexible ways to roll out emerging tools.

Virgin America:

Put Emerging Technology—and Risk—in Business Terms

Talk to Bill Maguire long enough and he could convince you he came out of the womb embracing emerging technology. "For as long as I can remember, I've always been out there looking at new technologies, figuring out how to exploit them," Maguire says. "I'm diligent about trying to keep up and have a good degree of confidence in my ability to do so."

Seven Tips for Rolling Out Emerging Tech

  • Give business leaders a layman's tutorial on the role of any emerging tool or process.
  • Make sure the larger organization understands the risk of any new technology and what went into your risk assessment.
  • Invite more conservative members of the IT team to weigh in on emerging trends. They may have technical insight to prevent costly mistakes later on.
  • Test unproven technology on a few hundred IT guinea pigs before you conduct larger corporate pilots.
  • Create a repeatable process for shepherding new ideas from proof of concept to rollout that will also weed out technologies that aren't ready for prime time.
  • Harness the energy of early adopters in the business and broadly publicize their success with the tools.
  • Consider segmenting your user base and wait to deploy emerging tools to less-adventurous users until they're ready.

    -S.O.

  • Maguire's history as an early adopter contains successful and, well, less-successful chapters. As the CIO of Legato, Maguire was one of the first IT executives to implement VoIP in 2001, saving the company more than $3 million. The year before, running the U.S. Postal Service's primary data center as manager of computer operations, his organization was among the largest—and earliest—users of VMware in the country. A decade earlier, Maguire had introduced to the USPS one of the first virtual storage solutions in the country, StorageTek's Iceberg disk-array storage subsystem.

    That didn't turn out as well.

    "We brought two of the big storage units in house, and [the vendor] made a big splash," Maguire recalls. "It was bleeding edge." It was also very complicated. What should have been up and running in a few weeks took months to get online. "Once we got it, it put us way out in front," says Maguire. "But it took three times longer than expected."

    Nothing has dampened Maguire's enthusiasm for technology innovation, though. "I'm a glutton for it," he says. Today, however, Maguire knows the right questions to ask in order to evaluate the business risks. "You have to understand your environment very well," he says. "Then you have a good idea of whether a piece of new technology will really work for you or not."

    At Virgin America, where Maguire landed as CIO two years ago, that has been easier than at previous companies because Maguire built the architecture from the ground up. Yet risks still lurk in Maguire's tech choices from the edge.

    Virgin America's application stack is open-sourced to the hilt, from spam filtering to load balancing to document management. Although open-source enterprise systems aren't yet a mainstream tech choice, it makes good business sense because it enables the carrier to keep IT costs down. But because the company is growing (it now runs about 100 flights a day) there's concern whether these free or cheap solutions will scale. "With spam filtering, when you're getting a couple thousand e-mails a day, it's no big deal. But when you start getting 20,000, can you handle that?" Maguire did scalability pretesting, but it's something he must monitor as the company expands.

    Maguire doesn't fall for emerging technology just because it's new. At Virgin America, new technology must either improve productivity or keep costs low. Successful deployment starts with making sure company leaders understand the business case and the risks associated with less-tested solutions. Maguire might begin by telling them in basic terms what load-balancing software Ultra Monkey actually does. He then explains his thinking behind the open-source option: It costs $3,500 per server versus a non-open-source option at $90,000 per box. A more extreme example is the free, Web-based document management solution Knowledge Tree, one of the first open-source enterprise content management systems, which Maguire says took only a few hours to roll out companywide. The tested, commercial option more familiar to business leaders—Documentum—would have cost an estimated $1 million. Finally, Maguire gives Virgin's leaders a risk assessment for each new system—from low to extremely high—and the criteria he used to make the assessment.

    It's amazing what a dramatically reduced price tag does for the business's willingness to take a chance on new systems.

    "They'll at least give you a few months to try it out," he says. But not everything makes the final cut. Maguire tried out a free, open-source CRM solution from OpenCMS. And he got what he paid for. "We gave it a whirl. It didn't have the true functionality we needed in a CRM solution." Virgin America will probably opt for another open-source option, Maguire says, once the company has defined the requirements for it. (He's considering on-demand vendor SugarCRM.)

    Maguire's biggest aides when assessing the risks of emerging technology are also his biggest doubters: the business systems analysts. "They're technically knowledgeable, but also understand the business," he says. "And they're the most conservative because they know whether something is really going to meet business requirements. They don't have time to goof around with products that don't solve a business need."

    Vail Resorts:

    The Search for the Next Big Thing

    Vail Resorts' Urwiler and his team of 110 think of themselves as technology innovators because they don't work in a tech-centric business. "All technology innovation comes through the IT team so that has to be part of our core competency," says Urwiler, who previously worked at software maker Macromedia. "It doesn't mean we're always going to be the very first user of software, but it does mean we're always on the lookout."

    From his perch a mile high in Broomfield, Colo., Urwiler explores everything from social networking tools to mobile device applications to biometrics, looking for emerging technology that might be brought to bear at the company's ski mountains in Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone or Heavenly. He works closely with vendors to identify emerging trends, keeps his ears open at conferences and talks to his peers. And he encourages his team to keep abreast of the latest IT tools. "Ideas come from every place," Urwiler says. The best ones are those that can provide competitive differentiation for Vail Resorts by improving the guest experience.

    When Urwiler explores new technologies, he worries most about the potentially negative effect on the end customer. "Once we set an expectation about a new tool, it has to work," he says. "We are very cautious about what we expose to a guest. This is the vacation of the year for some of them." Urwiler doesn't want to be the one to ruin it. To manage the flow of new ideas and make sure only technologies that will improve the guest experience get the green light, Urwiler created Vail Labs. It's an idea incubator for vetting ideas and moving those with potential value from proof of concept to rollout.

    The RFID guest tags Vail Resorts will roll out next season started there. Urwiler's team looked at biometric passes being used at some theme parks, which are based on finger geometry and involve scanning people's hands. The Vail Resorts team determined that scanning hands wouldn't work in the heavily gloved and layered ski environment, but the RFID component of such a system had promise.

    Vail Labs fielded a proof of concept on the slopes, bringing mountain operations staff into the process. "Early on, there's always a natural skepticism. You're dealing with operations people who are very good at what they do. IT comes in with grand ideas about how to improve that, and there's a show-me mentality." For a pilot last season, 1,000 patrollers and ski instructors wore RFIDs while Vail Labs logged information on usability. The system, which got the go-ahead, uses an RFID chip on a lanyard (like the bar-code ski passes Vail Resorts had employed for years) that can be scanned right through a jacket. The Vail Labs process is also designed to weed out solutions that aren't ready for mountain scrutiny. If a new tool fails to meet requirements for usability and reliability, if there are concerns about the vendor or if the cost-benefit analysis doesn't add up, the technology never leaves the lab.

    Last season, Urwiler looked at a friend-finder application for mobile devices. Urwiler had an agreement with the vendor whereby Vail Resorts would pay through a predefined usage model only after the technology proved usable. "The proof of concept was brilliant. There was a lot of excitement around it." The pilot wasn't so thrilling. The application, intended to enable skiers to locate each other via GPS, did not meet the reliability threshold. Urwiler and team are still hopeful in making the solution work. "But because we took a conservative approach to it, we had very little money invested," says Urwiler. "It was low risk."

    Genentech:

    Controlled Chaos and the Scientific Method

    "I have a high level of comfort with paradox and ambiguity," says Todd Pierce. "That helps when talking about new technology."

    That's a bit of an understatement from the VP of Corporate IT of Genentech, who's currently overseeing piecemeal rollouts of Google apps and iPhones—and who several years ago installed a cellular data service network and Wi-Fi access campuswide. "A lot of being successful is figuring out what tensions—what paradoxes and conflicts—to hold," Pierce continues. "Combining what's possible with what's practical—holding that tension—determines how successful I am as CIO."

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