I've been an early adopter of consumer technology for decades—in fact, I built my first computer way back in 1965. Friends and neighbors regularly check to see if I have any cool high-tech discards, because I'm constantly replacing products they consider good as new.
When it comes to business technology, however, I've long relied on a different strategy. For many years I worked in an organization that claimed to be a "fast follower" but was really a slow follower, consistently opting for well established technologies that offered excellent reliability, easy availability, volume pricing and adequate useful life—all factors in reducing total cost of ownership. I worked hard there to balance cost of ownership and potential return on investment.
This apparent disconnect puzzled, even frustrated, many of my colleagues. They knew my personal reputation as an early adopter, and couldn't understand why I didn't attempt to transfer that approach into the corporate world. But it was a conscious decision on my part, because being an effective early adopter is a tremendous amount of work, involves a major commitment and puts the organization at more risk than most IT professionals realize. It's tempting, of course, to buy into vendor come-ons, and you probably have more opportunities now than ever to go the early adopter route.
Tech vendors are champing at the bit to get visibility for their new products. They want press coverage and analyst pieces and general market buzz to accelerate sales. They're pushing beta programs, taking advantage of people's desire for exclusivity and privilege, even as they seek broader participation.
For most companies, however, early adopter programs are a drain on time and resources, because they require tolerance of all the new technology's fallibilities: Inconsistent stability and reliability causing unanticipated interruptions to operations; demand for massive support; constant updates; essential features that disappear before the product is released.
The list goes on. And too many companies try to fudge it by using new technologies only on dummy projects, but that defeats the purpose. To be a truly successful early adopter, you have to test painfully imperfect technology in business-critical areas; that's the only way you find out what you really need to know.
Sometimes, of course, you have to get in early because the price of being late would be too high. I did this more than a few times during my stints as CIO and CTO. But each time, I made sure we had a live project in place, and I substituted the emerging technology for the older one we'd planned to use. I kept a close eye on these projects, and was ready to pull the plug on a moment's notice. Because that's the other issue with early adoption: About 60 percent of the time, it fails. I'm not surprised by that statistic. I have been collecting and analyzing data on early adopter projects since the early 1980s and I have seen little improvement in the percentage of successes over the past 25 years.
So next time a vendor invites you to be the first on your block to try some new technology, think hard. And remember, sometimes it's okay to say, "Thanks but no thanks."