dance steps in the sidewalk
Taking a few basic steps in advance of technology purchase can help set businesses up for success PHOTO: John Henderson

If you've been in this industry long enough you know that much, if not most, spending on information technology falls short of the hoped-for results.

This has always been the case. And dealing with it has always been difficult, no less so in today’s technology-centric world.

Organizations hoping to get the most from new technology need an effective plan in place from the get-go. The following four basic steps can help you navigate some of these difficulties. 

Step 1: Know What You're Trying to Do 

Do you expect the technology to support an expansion of existing processes? 

If so, expect a linear increase in capacity and output commensurate with the degree of spending.

For example, credit card authorization vendors like VISA and MasterCard have over the years installed additional computing and communication technology to handle constant increases in transactions. The resulting increase in transaction capacity has been roughly proportional to the new resources.  

In cases like this, the new technology is designed to do more of the same. Inefficiencies baked into existing processes may limit the success of new tools, but will still yield a predictable boost in productivity.

Also remember that sometimes you can yield as many improvements by fixing some of the problems with your existing systems. Miss this and you risk just making a bad situation bigger.  

Are you buying the technology to support new processes or dramatically change existing processes?

If so, expect to see a gap between input and output which will often grow larger as the project expands.  

So what’s different?

The main difference is how much human intervention is required to design and execute the effort. This affects everything: the decisions about what technology you should acquire and at what point in the project you should acquire it, what research and design is needed before you decide to buy, and how you will manage and evaluate the implementation effort.

Historically, our track record hasn’t been very good: we buy too little or too much hardware too soon and with too little advance planning.  

Then we buy, design, develop and manage the needed software without a clear understanding of what we want to accomplish and what to expect.  

Unfortunately these failures are usually viewed as problems in project management and never see the light of day. 

Step 2: Involve the Decision Makers

Too many businesses get caught up in buying sprees, failing to understand that technology spending is a tool to accomplish a functional requirement.  

When the technology becomes the goal, you end up with a lot of flashing lights, but little progress where you need it.

The best way to keep things functional? Early in the effort, involve the decision makers responsible for results. These people may not be steeped in technology, but they know what has to be done to make the organization successful — and will ask the important questions before the checkbook comes out.  

This may upset your IT department, but persevere, the result is worth the trouble.

Step 3: Set Achievable Expectations 

Take all the progress you can get, but don’t establish arbitrary goals that you can’t hope to deliver (executives are famous for this).  

No project exists in a vacuum. And so-called "failed" projects can poison the well for future efforts, even when they produced what should have originally been hoped for.

In the early 1960s, for example, IBM developed a supercomputer, the 7030-Stretch, with the goal of a 100 times improvement over other computers. 

When it reached only an approximately 40 times improvement, IBM viewed it as a failure and closed down the project — even though it represented the fastest computer in the world for several years and spawned a series of improvements in hardware technology that contributed significantly to the highly successful 360 series of computers.

Step 4: Use Common Sense 

There are plenty of formal protocols out there, all of which claim to be the solution for IT project management. While most contain some of the same basic principles, they shroud them in layers of jargon and detail that can mask problems and actually make success less likely.

If you really want a formal basis for your effort, I like Concurrent Engineering (CE). This systems design approach focuses on communication, cooperation and the concurrent involvement of all parties, technological or not.  

While originally created in the '80s and '90s for design/manufacturing environments, CE’s precepts fit most projects whether the end product is an automobile, a TV set or an information system.

As your project proceeds, you'll have plenty of other details to work out, but get these basics right, keep your wits about you and you may just contribute to the enhanced productivity everyone hopes for.