IS execs tell how emerging technologies make the grade

Sorting out the buzzword of the day from those technologies that will make a difference to one's business requires a well-defined process and criteria, according to a couple of IS executives speaking at Wednesday's CIO Symposium, sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) set up a process and a dedicated group for evaluating emerging technologies in 1996, when its staff of IT professionals had grown to about 4,700. So much new development was underway that in some cases one group might be developing the business case for a new technology while another was already evaluating it, according to Jim Medeiros, vice president of IS shared services at the delivery company.

UPS' process involves an evaluation of a new technology on paper first, after which a determination is made whether it's worth investing in a prototype. If the prototype meets the approval of the governance group, a development group writes the application, which must meet final approval before deployment.

"One of the big wins we had was using Linux," Medeiros said. Because the company feels it's important to stay ahead of the business needs for emerging technologies, the open-source operating system was put through the evaluation process and a production-hardened version was ready a year before the call came for it to be deployed within UPS.

Meanwhile, at Verizon Communications the first question that must be answered about a new technology is whether it will have a positive impact on the company's earnings, according to Shadman Zafar, senior vice president of architecture and e-services. If there is a clear business case, then Zafar also asks, among other things, whether the technology is disruptive -- that is, something cheap, with increasing numbers of people using it, and quality not yet up to par but the technology is becoming more available. The final element in making a case for an emerging technology, in particular one involving next-generation communications, is to "explicitly seek out power users as our advisers," Zafar said. Power users can corroborate the need for a new service or technology -- "they have the ability to verbalize needs ahead of other customers," he added.

Both executives acknowledged that the processes they have created for evaluating technology aren't always followed; Verizon's Zafar said that about 30 percent of the time they are not.

When the technology is one that will allow for market creation -- not just market penetration -- the initial phase doesn't always follow the program, Zafar said. "In market creation you have to sometimes break the process or it won't happen," he said.

Likewise, at UPS, Medeiros said that it's important to strike a balance between "anarchy versus the process taking too long."

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