Opinion: Timing your move into disruptive technologies

Though product cycle times are accelerating, the underlying technologies unfold over many years

Cloud computing. Mobile technology. Big data. Social networks. With so many disruptive technologies on the horizon, timing your move into each can make the difference between getting ahead of the competition and falling irreparably behind.

One thing that can help you gauge when to take up an emerging technology is the technology adoption life cycle. This sociological model, invented by researchers at the University of Iowa who were studying the adoption of hybrid seed corn by farmers, illustrates that adoption typically follows a bell curve, with the first adopters being the innovators, followed by the early adopters, the early majority, the late majority and finally the laggards.

It can certainly be argued that, over the course of the 20th century, technologies were adopted at a faster and faster pace. For example, the telephone took 25 years to reach 10% penetration of U.S. households, and another 39 years to reach 40%. Midcentury, |color television took 18 years (between 1954 and 1972) to reach 50% adoption by U.S. households. More recently, the smartphone needed just 10 years to reach 40% adoption by U.S. consumers, and the tablet has reached 10% penetration in less than three years.

Of course, a lot of factors come into play. Landline telephones and electricity took many years to be adopted by a majority of the population, but they both faced "last mile" difficulties in bringing telephone lines and electric cables to homes. With color television, price was a factor, as was the availability of color programming. Nonetheless, the evidence points to ever-faster adoption rates, which can leave you thinking that there's a very short window for competitive advantage around each disruptive trend.

The good news is that, while product cycle times may be well under a year, the overall trend upon which the technologies are carried typically unfolds over many years. Within each trend there are multiple enabling technologies, all at various stages of maturity and adoption. Take cloud computing as an example. If we categorize cloud computing into software as a service, platform as a service, and infrastructure as a service, it's clear that each area has its own unique trajectory and timeline. The SaaS movement has been under way since the late '90s and is more mature than PaaS or IaaS. Even within the SaaS market, certain approaches and business functions are more mature and widely accepted than others. For example, cloud-based e-mail and collaboration are far more widespread than current use of IT service management as a service.

In addition, many of the most enduring trends take many years to unfold. Mobility is a great example. While it's been around for several decades, it's only now that we have the combination of low-cost, feature-rich devices, ubiquitous access, and easy-to-use applications and interfaces that has enabled mobility to quickly become the new desktop.

With all this in mind, timing your move into an emerging area is a lot more complex than a simple go/no-go decision. Whether it is cloud computing, social computing or big data, here are three recommendations to help with timing your move:

Watch the early adopters. Even if they are in other industries, you can learn from the experiences of early adopters. If you're a fast follower as opposed to a lead innovator, you'll be able to study the experiences and case studies of companies and competitors in your industry in order to time your move. If you're a lead innovator, you may need to monitor other industries that may be faster adopters of emerging technology than your industry and see how their experiences might translate to opportunities within your own.

Determine a suite of strategic levers tailored to your corporate objectives. Develop a long list of ways you can apply the various technologies to benefit the business and detail what benefit will accrue to which set of stakeholders. It is likely that the levers can be applied toward either IT or line-of-business objectives and for any combination of cost reduction, process improvement, customer satisfaction or revenue generation purposes, depending upon the target business process and constituency. This suite of strategic levers will provide you with a slate of options that you can then apply over time based upon the maturity of the underlying technologies and end-user readiness.

Develop a strategic road map for each disruptive trend. For each area like cloud computing or mobility, it's important to have a strategic road map over a suitable planning horizon, such as the next three years, which details how you plan to progressively exploit the technology for business advantage. These trend-specific strategic road maps should be a key part of your IT strategy, much the way the U.S. federal government has incorporated mobility into its overall Digital Government Strategy, which requires agencies to mobile-enable at least two priority customer-facing services within the next 12 months. The suite of strategic levers may give you a good starting point from which to map out your various initiatives within the road map.

Finally, it's important to know your company's overall stance and appetite for risk with regard to technology adoption and ensure that your plans are appropriately aligned. Even in a more conservative organization, it may well be permissible and beneficial to break the mold if the stakes are not too high or if you're operating in a carefully controlled environment. In all situations, look for innovative uses of the technology above and beyond what others are doing. Many of the strongest business returns on emerging technologies often materialize when they're applied in novel ways to enable new business models and new business processes.

Nicholas D. Evans leads the Strategic Innovation Program for Unisys and was one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2009. He can be reached at nicholas.evans@unisys.com.

Read more about cloud computing in Computerworld's Cloud Computing Topic Center.

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