by Mark Aikman
When I was a lad, telephones were indoors and connected to the wall with a bit of string. All telephoning, especially calls with the potential to indicate romance, was strictly supervised and regular reminders were issued of the prohibitive cost involved.
Then technology changed. By the early/mid 90s phones could be taken anywhere, even into the next room. By the end of the 90s, more than half the population had this facility. By 2005, almost everyone did. Calling was now cheap, even free. Work could now be conducted in almost any space on the planet. Workers could be contacted at almost any time of the day. Ten years later, almost all office work could be carried out on a phone. Telephony is perhaps the most obvious way in which the arrival of technology took the lead in changing how we work.
But it’s also taught everyone in the Western world about technological advancement. Oh, how we smile about phones the size of house bricks, with pull-up aerials. Or snap-shut cool-dudery models, c.2000. But the rapid evolution of the phone has made technology’s potential for adaptation and reinvention very visible to the workforce. People now expect as standard continuous evolution and transformative capabilities from technology.
Therefore, I’d argue that advances in technology no longer dictate the way we work. The population now knows that technology can be made to evolve rapidly. Therefore, instead of waiting for some cool stuff to get invented, we simply expect that the necessary technology will be waiting in the wings to deliver any workplace specification.
For the CIO, this can present a minor migraine. The CEO or SLT will identify a business need and then someone is bound to say: “surely there’s already an app for that”. There is an expectation that technology moves so rapidly that anything can be built swiftly or even delivered next-day in a box by Amazon Prime.
In this situation, it’s the CIO’s job to:
- First and foremost, deliver what the business needs
- Take ownership of that innovation and delivery
- Manage expectations of what can be done; and by when…
… and all that with no loss of credibility.
So my checklist for creating technology that fits how the organisation wants to work is as follows:
Get to the truth behind the statement
Kids in a sweetshop. To some extent, that’s what rapidly evolving technology has made us. We get dazzled by the new and want it now. Some people want EVERYTHING that’s new, simply because it’s, well… new.
So the first step is to identify how genuine the need is to the business. Is it a real need, giving us an edge with our customers/in our sector? Or is it just something the initiator wants to flash around in the pub or put on her CV?
Ask questions that begin with “W”. Why do we need it, what will it do for the customers, where will we use it? Check how robust this idea is. If there’s a lot of on-the-hoof response, don’t rush into any action – instead move to quantify the need/benefit first.
Define what success will look like
There’s nothing worse than “blue sky thinking”. I don’t mean just that stupid phrase (although it’s hard to identify a worse expression); I mean the act of a lot of people imagining completely new things. It’s likely that all the SLT is thinking about the new thing, but each member is using a different paradigm. Therefore, they will all have a slightly different view of the new thing, and what it contains and what it can do. Someone needs to capture these varying visions and expectations.
So for the avoidance of doubt, before commissioning any creativity, sit down with all of them and draw up a list of what they each imagine the new thing is/does, and how it will have to work for everyone to believe it is worthwhile. By asking people to demonstrate the tangible outcomes they want, they will often communicate more clearly about their expectations. You will have a more detailed picture of what the new technology needs to deliver.
Understand how people will use it
Why has no-one come up with an app for herding cats? People could really use that. Someone could make a lot of money from designing it.
The people who will use our technological innovation – even in the hyper-obedient corporate world – are a herd of cats. They will not use it for its true purpose and in a prescribed way unless it feels right and is easy.
So the next step is to collect information on how people carry out the affected task now; how they break the rules; what they skip; and how they annoy their colleagues by what they do. That won’t give you a cat-proof blueprint, but it will at least ensure the cats sniff it in the first place.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
There’s something about Silicon Valley rockstars that seems to make people want to be first-to-production with a new new thing. Maybe it’s the megabucks, maybe it’s the polo necks, but lots of people are a closet Steve Jobs.
For most of us, the truth is that we are not really at the bleeding edge of technological advancement. We do not have a top-secret development kitchen staffed by people cleverer than Stephen Hawking. Therefore, it’s likely that the technology we need already exists – even if it’s not yet in quite the right configuration.
So Tip 4: don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, look along the shelf of existing products first, and buy or adapt something that already exists. Wandering about the stage dressed in black and wearing a Madonna-mike is over-rated, anyway.
Get the best out of the people who’ll get the best out of the technology
You might not have the in-house skills to develop the technology you need. Don’t attempt to Blue-Peter-it and run one up in the garage from old washing up liquid bottles and sticky-back plastic – it’s almost always a false economy. Buy in whatever extra expertise you need.
I’ve bought in some excellent software development from within the EU in recent years. I believe one of the massive advantages of using this type of near-shore development is the opportunity it presents to develop the product using hybrid teams – in-house people working alongside experts from the partner company. Ideas are cross-pollinated; both parties develop their own knowledge, techniques, and IP; and the absolutely-right product is developed at an accelerated rate.
The organisation gets more out of the project than just the new technology or software. After the project, it knows more stuff. For next time.
Evangelise about agile
Agile is sometimes still seen as “they’ve launched it before it was ready”. Again, that comes from the Naughties mindset that other people create technology and impose it on us, all finished and perfect.
As CIOs, we need to educate colleagues that agile development is, in fact, a collaborative form of developing the right technological product. It’s building the product with the feedback woven into it – and it’s NOT imposing a half-baked solution that IT couldn’t be bothered to test.
By gaining colleagues’ acceptance of agile development as the best way of incorporating the end user’s ideas, needs and feedback, we can reverse this unhelpful perception and engage users much more closely. And as every CIO knows, if you engage their interest before go-live, they are a squillion time more likely to use it effectively post-launch.
Fail fast, but don’t call it that to the SLT!
Of course, agile development (even in hybrid teams with their excellent knowledge of what is needed and what will work) assumes that the product will not be right the first time and will need adaptation. It will, technically, fail at first. Failure is good – it gives invaluable information on precisely what is not right and needs to be adjusted. Early failure means there’s still time to amend and evolve what we’re working on.
Failing fast is an excellent step in the development process. It’s just the language is unfortunate. People seem to see the word “fail” as negative… SLTs tend not to go big on failure.
So be sure to make liberal use the language of “trial” and “prototype” and “model” and “pilot” and “concept” and all that jazz. So you’re not failing fast; you’re taking your prototype to V.2.
Eyes on the prize
Back to Steve Jobs. And the Zuckerberg guy. These people made a few bob selling their ground-breaking concepts to a global audience. A number of CEOs have read books about them – or as a minimum, seen the movies. Any CEO worth her salt also looks for ways of maximising return on investment.
So the CEO who puts those two ideas together will soon be asking whether there is a market for our technological innovation. Can we potentially sell it to partners, competitors or people in entirely dissimilar industries?
It’s a legitimate question; and very occasionally, there might be more money to be made from the new technology than there is from continuing with our mainstream business. But that will only occur very occasionally (and possibly only for visionaries like Zuckerberg and Jobs). So, by all means, investigate the opportunity; and partner with Marketing to look at the potential, but…
…keep your eyes on the prize. Persuade the SLT that our own use of the new technology will be its proof-of-concept and that perfecting it for our use first is an essential starting point, prior to global domination. The alternative – quickly developing a catch-all product that suits Uncle Tom Cobbley and the widest number of associates – is weakened without a successful proof-of-concept; and the hybrid-diluted-homogenous gizmo we’d create probably won’t even be fit for our own purposes.
Do you remember, earlier in this list about 45 minutes ago, we involved the users of the new technology at a couple of points? By the time of launch, those users may well have let the idea slip their minds… Therefore, it is always worth deliberately creating some increased appetite for the innovation before it goes live.
So buddy-up with some internal partners – such as Sales/Marketing for communicating with the customers; or the line managers of the people in the organisation who will be using it day-to-day. Understand from these partners what the likely barriers to incorporating this innovation are going to be. Tee-up the partners to start work on energetically communicating what’s going to be better. NB. That’s “better”, not “different”.
Make sure everyone in the communication chain understands what the benefits are of the new technology to how we’ll all be working in future. These people need to be able to answer everyone’s favourite question: What’s in it for me? Because no-one likes change. They say they do, but actually, at best it’s inconvenient and an effort. At worst it’s a scary threat. And there’s no natural appetite for being inconvenienced, worn-out, threatened and scared. It’s gotta be worth it…
Make sure it gets used
See above for carrots. Now: sticks.
By the time of launch, you could have invested a considerable chunk of a budget in your innovative technology. Just like, once upon a time, Clive Sinclair did with his C5.
Do you drive a C5? Thought not. This was a technology that we failed to embrace. And your new platform or app or software can easily go the same way. Sinclair had used leading-edge design and content; he’d partnered well; he’d communicated widely on the benefits of the new machine. But we didn’t buy it. Literally.
So you may be wise, as a leader of the business, to use a tool that Clive Sinclair did not have available to him: coercion.
Full and proper use of the new technology (that makes us work smarter) can be very effectively encouraged by making competence one of the objectives or KPIs by which staff performance is measured. Failure to use the technology, or partial/improper use, will reduce an individual’s scores-on-the-doors at year-end. Or perhaps, their non-compliant usage will show in their performance statistics – they’re just not getting the results the others are achieving. Whichever way you do it, be sure to measure the adoption of the new technology using the tool you use for their overall performance metric. By heck, that doesn’t half focus attention on the new technology.
So, to conclude: I don’t believe that technology is changing the way we work. I think it DID, say from 1980 to 2010, when we adapted our lives to innovations in technology (well, except for the late-lamented C5). But now, we’re in an era where we see it the other way round: we envision the working life we want, and then demand that technology makes that happen…
“So a big thank you to Mark for that. You can find out more about what he does over on his LinkedIn profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-aikman-cio/. You can also hear him in interview on Episode 88 ”