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.

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Cycling in the latest innovative technology is truly an exercise in controlled chaos for Pierce, who sees his primary role to be figuring out how fast to deploy emerging technology to gain the ultimate benefit. Which, Pierce notes, turns out to be a pretty tall order with new tools being introduced at a faster rate than ever before. The scientific approach of a biotech company, currently exploring new treatments for cancer and auto­immune disease, is boon and bane for IT. It's an innovative bunch, for sure. "But that scientific mentality makes it very easy for them to question what you're doing," says Pierce. "People here are very willing to try new things, but it can't just be new. It has to be new and better. And you have to prove it."

Pierce evaluates any new technology on a host of dimensions: Who can he serve with it? How reliable and efficient is the tool and associated processes? How much does it cost? How does it impact IT's relationship with the business? At what scale can he deploy it? And what is its life cycle?

The company was using 5,000 mobile telecommunication devices, including BlackBerrys, last year when the iPhone hit the market. The average consumer who bought it right away may have seen a sleek, new mobile phone to add to a growing gadget collection. But Pierce saw a business solution. Genentech deals with a lot of image-based data, but no one could imagine accessing it with the devices they were using. Pierce saw the iPhone's multitouch interface—which allows users to flip rapidly through photos by merely "flicking" a fingertip on its screen or to resize a photo by "pinching" the image with two fingers—as an enabler for a truly mobile Genentech workforce.

He tempered his excitement with a five-month study last year, for which he gave iPhones to a group of mobile device users on his IT staff. He observed adoption rates and conducted three user surveys. Eighty-five percent of users preferred the iPhone. To date, Pierce has rolled out 3,000 of them.

The key for Pierce is that he doesn't have to get to full consensus before rolling out an emerging solution. Ideas are floated. Tests are run. The cross-functional group of five VPs that oversee IT strategy and prioritize projects will argue back and forth about which emerging technologies should be deployed more widely within the organization. But at a certain point—once everyone's concerns have been considered and the potential value of a technology has been validated—says Pierce, "I become the decision maker."

It's not as scary as it sounds. "We have a CEO who would rather be fast and make a mistake and recover from it than be slow and miss something," Pierce says. Plus, Pierce doesn't see the embrace of emerging technologies as an all-or-nothing proposition. "We don't have to do everything all one way, or wait for all the factors to line up," he says, "A lot of decision makers get caught in that trap."

Instead, Pierce segments his user base. Not everyone needs an iPhone. Maybe Google apps aren't a good solution enterprisewide. "There are cultural barriers when you have this much diversity of talent," says Pierce. "So we're breaking things down into smaller segments and asking, Is this segment worth servicing in this way? We're allowing for more personalization, more customization, more choice."

That approach doesn't work all the time. "It's tricky with technologies that require you to enter at scale. You can't phase your way into SAP," says Pierce, referencing Genentech's biggest IT investment of all time. In fact, there are more than a few products and uses of emerging technologies Pierce hasn't found to be successful during his six years as CIO. Web access controls, portals, rules engines, content management systems—none of these made it much past the pilot stage. "What these things have in common is that they have too much complexity and require too large of an investment to implement and maintain," Pierce says. "(They) will probably be replaced by less-expensive and less-complex solutions."

With Google apps, however, Pierce started out with 100 users. He now has 1,000 people using the software, at just $50 a head. And Pierce can justify a bigger rollout based on the benefits of the calendaring system alone. If any of the other applications show value, it's an added bonus.

How to Decide When New Tech Is Worth Trying

Early adoption of emerging technology is no longer limited to tech-centric companies or to those with deep pockets. But CIOs must be smart when embracing less-tested tools. Here are 10 questions to ask before taking the plunge.

  • How does this solution fit into my existing environment?
  • What is the business benefit (even if I can't prove an ROI yet)?
  • What are the risks?
  • Can I explain this technology to my CEO in 30 seconds or less?
  • Do I know who will use it?
  • Can I test it without business disruption and without spending lots of money?
  • Is the vendor stable?
  • Will this solution scale?
  • Does my staff have the expertise to manage it?
  • How will this emerging technology affect my customers or suppliers?

    -S.O.

  • Dannon:

    The Art of Modern Mainstreaming

    Any organization can play with cool new things," says E.J. Hutchinson, CIO of the Dannon Company. "They key is figuring out which ones will actually drive business value and mainstreaming those into the organization."

    To make the cut at Dannon, a "cool new thing" has to help the company increase sales, increase market share or improve efficiency. Once Hutchinson's team proves an emerging technology is worthwhile, the real work begins—rolling it out to the workforce and creating new business processes to get value from it. Mainstreaming it, in other words.

    "Mainstreaming is when the business sees the solution or tool as something they wish to use, day in day out," Hutchinson says. Of course, mainstreaming isn't what it used to be—a dictate from IT about which tools thou shall and shalt not use. Today it can mean having to support several generations of technology for some users until the larger universe of them catches up. And it's particularly tricky given Hutchinson's diverse workforce.

    "The workers coming out of school today have only had the Internet," Hutchinson says. "The way I hate having to write a letter and go to the post office to send it, this generation feels the same way about e-mail. They'd rather use IM, SMS or avatars." Meanwhile, he adds, the adoption cycle from research to rollout, which used to take years, is compressed to a year or even less.

    Hutchinson is figuring out the best methods for fast and effective mainstreaming of new tools with the rollout of Dannon's massive, multimillion-dollar Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC2) project. It's one of Dannon's five strategic IT projects today. UC2 encompasses not only a leading-edge, unified communications component (whereby calls and e-mail and video conferences can transfer from a business phone to a cell phone to home to hotel without interruption, for example) but also the exploration of Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, blogs and technologies with capabilities similar to those provided by Facebook and Second Life, which have seeped into the mainstream of many people's personal lives, but which remain unproven in the enterprise. Voice and data convergence won't be widely adopted for a couple more years, according to Gartner, and telepresence collaboration (technology that enables users to feel as if they are together with remote colleagues) is five to 10 years out.

    A consumer products company may seem an unlikely candidate for leading the charge toward unified communications and collaboration technology. "The bulk of our advantage is in product differentiation," admits Hutchinson. "But communication in this company has gotten so complex that e-mail and phone just aren't cutting it."

    Jim Panos, Hutchinson's director of informing and innovation for the Dannon Company, along with CTO of Danone North America Mike Close, conducted a UC2 pilot within IS. They didn't encounter any interoperability issues, because Dannon had been diligent about adopting standards-based technology in the past. Concerns about network capacity were solved with some additional investment in the network backbone and network traffic management. At a corporate leadership event, Dannon IS/IT highlighted some UC2 capabilities—a wiki for month-end financial closes and a video-conference capability for monthly business unit updates that could replace costly executive travel. Top business executives were sold on the value of UC2 right away.

    Dannon is about halfway through a rollout that could take another six months to a year. Panos has found that audio and video conferencing usage spikes shortly after these tools are given to new users. But, Panos points out, "there's a difference between adopting capabilities and institutionalizing them. The challenge is to take those tools and redefine business processes. How do you use conferencing in coordination with social networking tools to take communication to the next level?" Panos and Close have been working with the business to answer those questions. Following the executive team presentation, they solicited early adopters to join the pilot. "There's a huge upside because people are inventing and innovating in their own personal lives," says Panos. "You can leverage the consumer side of technology."

    One HR leader started interviewing candidates by teleconference instead of flying them to North American headquarters in White Plains, NY. Finance figured out a way to use a collaborative website to eliminate the mega e-mail files they'd send around during a close. "You can't underestimate the value of putting these tools into people's hands early," says Close. "The business folks innovated with the tools. They'd say 'I get it, but can I use it to do this?' That's where it takes off." Then Hutchinson spreads the word. He uses a wiki to share progress with business units. He is working with his parent company, Groupe Danone and a network of regional business and IT leaders who share their UC2 approaches and concepts.

    Differing adoption rates persist, however. Just as voice mail has not been eradicated by e-mail, IT leaders don't expect the UC2 tools to replace all existing communication technology. "Both methods have to be there for a while. We're going to have wikis and blogs, but some people will still [feel] comfortable with more traditional methods of communication," says Panos. "We say, 'Here's another possible way to do things.'"

    The approach may seem ad hoc, but there are some guiding principles in place. Before moving ahead with any new UC2 application, Hutchinson's team needs some positive responses to a handful of questions: Is the solution scalable globally? Does it look like it will have a positive midterm return? Will it work with existing equipment? Is the vendor going to be around to support it? Are other companies using the solution?

    It can make ROI calculations tricky, though. Beyond reduced travel costs and some increased productivity calculations, the payoff of UC2 is a little amorphous—increased quality of communication and work-life benefits for employees, for example. So Hutchinson measures success for the project differently, by tracking usability, adoption rates and employee feedback. The ROI is long term, and senior leaders get it. "[UC2] supports sustainability. It gives back time," Hutchinson says. "Those are soft benefits, but ones that are on the minds of executives today."

    Next, Hutchinson's team will explore how other emerging communication and collaboration tools—intelligent search, streaming video on mobile devices—can take UC2 even further. "I don't see a point where we'll be done," says Hutchinson.

    "I fundamentally believe what John F. Kennedy said: 'Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future,'" he adds. "We're not going to be bleeding edge, but we're always going to be early."

    Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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