Catching Tech Waves

FRAMINGHAM (03/27/2000) - "We're struggling," the executive said. "We missed a technology cycle." The lament came from the CEO of a software company when I asked how business was going. Somehow, his company had failed to update its products to take advantage of a new generation of operating systems. As a result, the company was having a hard time competing. It probably would survive, but it would be playing an exhausting game of catch-up for some time.

I wasn't surprised that it had missed a wave. Both producers and consumers often fail to act when a new technology, whether an opportunity or a threat, presents itself.

A stunning example is the failure of every major telecommunications company to act early on two of the biggest technology developments of our time: cellular phones and the Internet. The initial cellular players turned out to be the "wireless" companies, not the established phone companies. And the Internet became the turf of America Online Inc. and other Internet service providers.

The big telecoms have had to spend billions to buy their way into the game.

Theories abound as to why technology producers and consumers sometimes miss a wave. If you're a big producer, there's the risk of arrogance and believing that almost any new technology is too insignificant to deserve your valuable attention.

The new stuff is seen as toys and, of course, is always initially small in scale. I think that's what happened with cellular technology and the big telecoms. It may have been only Nokia and Motorola that saw that almost everyone would soon be carrying a pocket phone.

Some producers and consumers see new technologies as threats to their businesses. Managers are capable of predicting the dramatic effect that a technology might have on their industries but can be slow to react. Maybe the change will come on the next person's watch, they rationalize. I believe bankers have behaved that way for years, denying the immediate impact the Internet will have on the financial services industry.

And sometimes, corporate IT leaders just see a new development as too risky. So they spend millions on old stuff to be safe. After all, Bill Gates himself is reputed to have said that the difference between old and new technology is that the old technology works.

But missing a technology wave today can be costly. So when you see an opportunity, how do you know when to act, to catch the wave? Were the folks at Nokia just lucky? What did it take for ETrade to launch?

My friends in academia would answer that some combination of foresight, inductive reasoning, brilliant strategy and good planning was at play at all these companies. Cynics would say that it might have just been dumb luck. But I believe that people who catch a big technology wave and win have two qualities:

They're more prepared than lucky, and they tend to be unabashedly optimistic.

These qualities are often innate, but they can - and must - be acquired.

In the world of IT, being prepared means having a good sense of what's going on - both with technology and around your industry. Prepared people see and understand risk, where the unprepared wouldn't have the courage to act.

Optimism can also be learned. Just remember that very few new technologies get adopted without some bumps along the way. When challenged, do you think that the high priests of Linux believe that the world is conspiring against them or that they take setbacks personally? They see problems as natural events and expect them to be overcome tomorrow. Of course, hard work and discipline are necessary, but all setbacks are temporary. That's the way an optimist thinks.

Like surfing, catching a technology wave is an acquired skill.

Jim Champy is chairman of consulting at Perot Systems Corp. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He can be reached at JimChampy@ps.net. His newspaper columns are syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

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