Expert Voices: Pip Coburn on the Great Tech Disconnect

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 08-03-2006

Over nearly two decades of observing technology markets, Pip Coburn has developed a style of analysis that is part philosophy, part psychology. From 1999 to 2005, Coburn headed up UBS's technology research division, before embarking on his own consulting career. He wrote The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn (Portfolio, June 2006) to encapsulate his theories on user adoption as the precursor to technology change.

CIO Insight: What is the change function?
The change function is a way of looking at why some technologies have been adopted, and others haven't. It runs counter to the implicit thinking in the tech community: the assumption that if you combine the miracles of engineering with reductions in prices, large markets will arise. That's a limited view that focuses on supply. My view is that anytime you are thinking about technology adoption, the person really in charge is the end user. Until they hand you their money, all you have is a hobby.

When someone adopts a technology, they are being asked to change a habit. And when someone changes a habit, it's because their level of "crisis"—on a spectrum ranging from indifference to crisis—is greater than their perceived pain of adopting a new solution.

Take the Atkins Diet. The reason the diet was widely adopted is that middle-aged men didn't have to eat bird food. They could still eat protein and be real he-men—so there was low perceived pain of adoption. I use this framework to talk about many different changes. A great example in the technology world is the PC. People say the adoption of PCs was all about Moore's Law. Moore's Law was a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. The necessary condition was the graphical user interface, which meant you didn't have to learn how to program, lowering the pain of adoption.

How did the technology community lose sight of that?
Fifty years of success went to their heads. In 1997, Andy Grove was named "Man of the Year" by Time magazine, and he had a famous quote: "Technology happens." There is an aloofness and arrogance in the tech community based on that early success. And egocentrism doesn't really work when you're trying to sell technology to 6 billion people.

Who gets it?
The standout example is Apple. It's obvious when you walk into an Apple store—it doesn't feel anything like a Sony or a Samsung store. Apple's people have thought a lot about creating an experience for shoppers, 180 degrees away from Gateway's stores. Gateway's failure actually led me to believe that the Apple stores were going to fail, too. But the Gateway stores were different. In the company's hubris, they decided they weren't going to sell most of their products in the store, because they didn't want to undermine their direct model. They wanted to train us. We don't want to be trained.

Another company that gets a lot of credit is Network Appliance. They make storage subsystems, and are often lauded for their simple set-up times. They really listen to their users. Users give you lots of clues, and it's important to listen closely. That's different from just surveying them. It means observing them, and that requires trained people.

Do CIOs have higher thresholds for the pain of adoption?
It's complicated when you go into an enterprise. Suddenly there are a number of users in the food chain that a company has to satisfy: There is the CEO, the CFO, the CIO, and then there's the end user. In addition to all the product complexity, that is a tremendous amount of human complexity.

What did was notice that many CIOs were buying CRM systems to solve a CEO crisis, because CEOs wanted to look hip to the board. So the CRM software wasn't being widely used. went in the other direction, and sold straight to the end users. They wanted to make the product not scary, and make it work from the bottom up. They wanted to make it easy for someone to propose buying it to their boss. said, "You can buy this month by month, and cancel anytime." So now the boss wasn't facing a big approval for a major purchase, because when you're spending $100,000, there is a whole food chain of people who have to say yes. But if you're just spending $70 a month, that's an easier decision.