Tech it or leave it

A lot of us (almost derisively) call technology a toy; and one does sometimes see techies running around with stars in their eyes. We will discount them and the opinions on them for the current purpose. We will instead focus on the real fear of ?losing out? on technology; and with specific reference to business. This fear is real, and gives countless sleepless nights to business technology executives.

Even if one is not a bleeding-edge-technologist, one worries about missing out on what could be relevant, important or meaningful. And this worry is not entirely misplaced. Before we delve a little more into this, let us also look at the other extreme. The extreme of ?if it is working, why fix it?; sometimes expressing itself in the arrogance of market leadership. This extreme has been the death knell of not just many a technical teams, but also of business themselves. Some near death examples exist in telecom, computer hardware and fizzy drinks. So the problem definition now is: How to determine if the new technology is worth the investment without being excitable or cynical.

There are simple commonsensical criteria for this; they are almost too obvious. Any one or more of the following criteria should get us to look at a new technology a little more closely. The following is in no particular order of importance. The first one is Security. The perpetual cat and mouse game makes it almost mandatory to look seriously at any new security development. One must however be cautious about the relevance of new development; as an example, a ?foolproof? method to track movement of goods in transit may not be relevant for an educational institution unless it is into distance learning.

The second criterion should be customer service. If one?s competitor adopts a new technology and provides better customer service and one gets ?left behind?, the business might get left behind. This can also manifest itself in reduced cost of providing ?hygiene? customer service (using the 80/20 rule). Examples of the latter are full-service ATM machines instead of human tellers and chatbots instead of a live service representative. Yet another manifestation of this is in additional services; an example being the ATM machine (again) that can now provide bill payment and upsell financial services.

The third criterion would be market reach. Without explaining this ad nauseum, we will just mention e-commerce. The current pandemic is seeing the death of many apparel retailers around the world. The shelter-in-place orders have not reduced the need for apparel; just how they are (increasingly) bought. One does not have to do more than pick a newsmagazine to see some global marquee name filing for bankruptcy, primarily because they missed the e-commerce bus or its next step, the online marketplace.

The fourth criterion is negation of competitive advantage. This is the true ?fear? factor: If one does not keep up, one will fall behind. The examples of global leaders in telecom, computer hardware and fizzy drinks mentioned above fall into this category; all of whom saw competitors overtake them using better technology (and marketing). As a side note, Forbes magazine had once called these businesses that will never ever lose their number one position.

The fifth criterion is of regulation and compliance, especially when they change dramatically or have a tendency to change continually.

There are more criteria that are specific to industry or geography that tell us to take it or leave it. And one could argue that there are more generic ones. We are here ONLY looking at what must always be looked at as a context for new technology evaluation. We will conclude that by saying that COBOL (a language that came into vogue before perhaps any one of us was born and can find no coders today) is still around and continues to have a significant presence; not because of ?why fix it? syndrome or because no ?improvement? came along. But because the large businesses adopted new technologies in parts where one of the above criteria was applicable, without going overboard. So today, you have many globally leading retailers and banks with e-commerce, advanced logistical tracking, InfoSec departments, and more, that still uses COBOL; in fact as this columnist can say with first-hand experience, even Assembler.

The author managed large IT organizations for global players like MasterCard and Reliance, as well as lean IT organizations for startups, with experience in financial and retail technologies

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