Early Adoption: Worth the Risk?

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

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.”

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