Technical solutions looking for a problem

IT is famous for offering solutions that are too complicated or require too much care and feeding for the problem at hand.

I saw a press release recently about a major technology company taking yet another stab at "connected, intelligent devices," claiming that our coffee makers would soon be communicating with our alarm clocks. We've done this dance several times over the last few decades, and I still remember being fascinated as a child by TV programs about "the house of the future," where lights dimmed automatically and one merely had to shout "chicken and beer" and a disembodied voice would obey your every command.

While there's arguably some benefit to having one's appliances communicate, the infrastructure, care, and feeding tend to negate any benefits. My recent entertainment system, which seems to require twelve minutes of firmware updates every time I turn it on to watch 30 minutes of TV, is a hassle that almost negates the benefit of internet-delivered video. I can only imagine sitting bleary eyed while my coffee maker announces "Updating ...  please wait" every third morning. Connected devices and the elusive smart home have parallels in corporate IT: the solution looking for a problem.

Many of these technologies instantly touch our inner geek, the functionality and technical elegance momentarily suspending the nagging sensation that this is just too complicated, or the "care and feeding" requirements too demanding. At the lower end of the scale, nearly every large company I've worked with has an elaborate "wired" conference room, with racks full of equipment and global video capabilities. Nearly without fail, any meetings I've attended which attempted to use the technology required someone from the AV department, or consumed 30 minutes with people shouting "no, use that cable" or "switch to input 78, NOT input 76!"

More diabolical are corporate distractions involving large technical systems. It might be an ERP implementation where millions are spent implementing a technically sexy bit of functionality that is never used since it's too complex to achieve the stated development. In the worst case, most of us have seen entire implementations where the end product is greeted with a proverbial sigh, and is collecting dust a few weeks later.

Pursuing a solution looking for a problem is obviously monetarily costly but, even more dire, can cost thousands of hours of scarce time. Going too deeply down a technical rabbit hole can literally waste years of IT hours that could have been more wisely invested. Furthermore, technical solutions looking for problems make IT appear out of touch. Just as I'm subjected to rolling eyes from my spouse when some component of our AV system demands firmware, your CEO is likely to deliver something far worse than an askance glance when you deliver the invoice for a disused or irrelevant technological adventure.

Luckily, the answer to technical solutions looking for a problem is fairly simple: continually ask yourself what problem the technology is solving, and if the cure is better than the disease. Any time you change the scope of the technology, or deviate from your original plan, ask yourself these two questions to ensure you don't gradually stray too far away from the original problem. When you have any doubts, review your progress with the community that will actually be using the technology. While any new system will have a learning curve, if it's looking untenable at any point, reconsider the technology at hand. It's nearly always better to pull the plug on an immature or unusable technology than throw good money after bad.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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