General Technological Investment and Innovation

The creators and supporters of new technology enjoy predicting the demise of the old guard and, occasionally, these predictions are correct. Telegrams, printing presses, and coal powered vehicles have all been relegated to museums or remain in use only to lure sightseers and holiday goers. However, in most cases, new technologies don’t spell the end of established technologies. Leaders in the business world must be careful to avoid trusting digital revolutionaries who strongly insist that their new technology will sweep away incumbents. Countless examples prove that the new rarely fully replaces the old: Digital watches didn’t destroy analog watches, just as mass produced quartz watches didn’t spell the end for handcrafted automatic timepieces. Radio didn’t destroy newspaper, TV didn’t destroy radio, and the internet has yet to destroy radio, newspaper, or TV.

The wisest course of action when presented with a new technology is to view it as a disruptor, something that will change the speed, profitability, or scale of an existing technology. When digital selling and communication became common, many predicted the rise of firms that could produce, ship, and work globally and sell directly to the consumer exclusively online. Some investors even predicted the death of physical stores, and pictured a life where all products and services are delivered online. Surprising, then, that Amazon’s boss Jeff Bezos recently announced that Amazon (an entirely online retailer) would begin to explore physical stores. Other successful online merchants are also beginning to move back into the physical spaces, and while flexible working hours and work-from-home policies have become popular large central corporate headquarters have not vanished. Nor has the need to manufacture goods close to where they will be sold. Despite all of the technological advances in logistics, companies are beginning to repatriate the manufacturing of everything from socks to computers in an attempt to reduce time-to-market, lower costs, and improve quality.

Even the vilified middlemen, who were supposed to be eliminated by an online marketplace, find their position strengthened by the enormity of choice. Despite being able to sell homes themselves, the vast majority of homebuyers and sellers still rely on real estate agents. Artists still rely heavily on agents and record labels to break into the market, and consumers still prefer to buy from retailers than directly from the manufacturer. Even the worldwide web isn’t truly worldwide. Quite aside from the millions without access, consumers tend to visit websites based in countries that are closer to them (Americans are more likely to visit Canadian sites as opposed to British sites).

Technological leaders in the corporate environment are responsible for the impossible task of figuring out how a new technology will disrupt the current market, and come up with a way to effectively harness that change. Predicting the future is obviously impossible, but using history as a guide, there are a two good practices to map the path forward:

1) Will the technology require widespread acceptance to work?

Often, a new technology (such as the Segway) will be billed as the way forward in some well established field. Initially, the prospects for a huge change look good (no one likes walking, Segway’s are fast, easy, and seem to fit well into everyday life). Unfortunately, to decrease the cost and increase the functionality, widespread acceptance is needed, and often never comes. The same thing has happened to new payment software, scannable codes, and countless applications. Unless everyone is using them, and using them the same way, these new technologies become nothing more than a novelty.

2) Is it comfortable?

Paper is still a fixture around nearly every office because in many cases, it’s just more natural. Paper is easy (and cheap) to mark up and give out. Technology has reduced the amount of paper necessary, but students still find themselves printing off slide decks, bosses still print reports, and “hard copies” are still very valuable. Word documents and PDFs are excellent, but they lack the intuitive usability of pen and paper.

Corporate technology leaders can also apply these two rules when purchasing corporate software. If there isn’t complete user acceptance (while most users can be mandated to adopt the new software, some departments may find ways to use it less, reducing the value of the project overall), and the process in unintuitive (adding extra steps to a process is a quick way to lose employee moral, and money) the entire project risks being abandoned in favour of the old fashioned way, no matter how groundbreaking the technology is.