How to avoid the ‘technology hammer’

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In 1964 Abraham Kaplan coined what he called the law of the instrument: "Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding."

This law, and all of its variations, describe the IT industry. We play the role of the small boy and technology, particularly new technology, fulfils the role of our favourite hammer.

You can see it everywhere. Whether it is in the creation of organisational IT strategies or the many vendor and commentator articles and white papers that come from the perspective of - "Here is a technology, it's really cool, now, let's identify a problem that we might be able to ‘hit’ with this technology." Oh we do it in a very sophisticated way ("Four key strategies to leverage [insert technology here].") but that's what we do; here is my hammer, it's awesome, would you like to hit things with it?

While I get the temptation to do this, it is the wrong way to sell technology and is unlikely to deliver any real value. Rather you need to start by defining the problem, need or opportunity. Having clearly understood the opportunity then you can begin to plan and strategise how to meet that need or opportunity, including considering which tool or group of tools are relevant to that problem, meets that need or creates the opportunity.

Doing this effectively requires that we change our perspective away from technology first to customer and business first. To be effective at this, we need to understand our organisations, what they do and how to create value and we need to know this as well as we know technology. Ultimately, this requires study, whether that is reading articles, talking to colleagues, spending time in the business, going to industry conferences or all of the above. You need to invest in understanding how your business works and how it makes money.

One of the best tools available to support you to understand your business is the business model canvas. The Business Model Canvas was initially proposed by Alexander Osterwalder. It is a template for developing new or documenting existing business models. It is a visual chart with elements describing a firm's or a product's value proposition, infrastructure, customers, and finances. It assists firms in aligning their activities to their strategy and it illustrates potential business model trade-offs.

I encourage all CIOs and senior IT leaders to spend some time studying the business model canvas and applying it to your business. You can find more information here and Wikipedia has a reasonable summary as well.

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‘You need to invest in understanding how your business works and how it makes money.’Owen McCall

Here is how I use the business model canvas to assist me to define an IT strategy:

  1. Start by creating a draft model of your business. Don’t try and get into too much detail to begin with. The canvas is a very visual tool and designed to be iteratively developed with Post It Notes or similar media.
  2. Discuss the draft with your peers across the business. When I do this I position the work I have done as being research that I am doing to help me to understand the business better. I explain that I am doing this so I can begin to understand how IT might be able to add value to the business.
  3. Adjust and refine the model based upon the feedback that you receive.
  4. Identify key linkages in your business model. Focus on understanding how the organisation creates value and what the key linkages are in your particular value chain. Some of these linkages will be obvious, others may not be.

Having created and socialised a version of the business model canvas search for key opportunities for the use of technology. Standout opportunities for technology include:

  • Large scale activities that can be effectively automated and streamlined.
  • Key decision points where relevant information can be provided to support better decision making.
  • Competitive differentiators where technology can set you apart from your competitors.
  • Opportunities to embed technology to improve the customer value from your products.

I would be interested in your thoughts and in particular hearing from you about what tools and templates you use to gain a better understanding of your business or customers.

Owen McCall is an experienced management consultant and CIO, and a member of the editorial advisory board of CIO New Zealand. Reach him through

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