Emerging Tech optimize

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.

About

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. Patrick has...

5 comments
viveka
viveka

This was a favorite quote of a previous manager. Basically it creates wastage. Today, we see that in all walks of life. In organizations it creates 15-25 layers of with the top 60% are management, simple decisions are made by committee, and re-inventing the wheel in IT is very common, and business communication skills displaced by very poorly engineered social engineering tools.

Ray Baker
Ray Baker

Like the TV or PC interrupting work to update, load, reboot; wait for the intelligent car that shuts off at 60 mph to do a reboot. Or "left turn driver option not loaded" error message. You do know that in today's car everything you touch is connected through the computer, acceleration , steering, heat cooling, wipers, turn signals, even brakes. It's kind of scary in a HAL sort of way. Everything was fine with mechanical linkages and a computer tweeking some values. To me this is a solution without a problem that can cause problems.

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

Wastage? Sounds too much like "signage". Folk in the past placed "signs"; now "signage" is deployed.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

[I]Everything was fine with mechanical linkages and a computer tweaking some values[/i] Back in the days when the Computer only controlled the Engine was way to complex for my liking, The system used even as recently as 20 years ago controlled both the Engine and Automatic Transmission was way too complex and frail for my liking. Throw a set of Jumper Leads at the vehicle because the driver left the lights on and flattened the battery and fry the Engine & Trans. Management. Do that today and fry the entire car to such an extent that it's paretically cheaper to junk that car and buy a new one. Compare that to my wifes 1972 Mercedes with Electronic Engine Management that controls the Mixture a True Multi Point Injection System, Advance and so on a All Analog System which was robust and took the punishment that was dished out by Mechanics who didn't know what Electronics where. Even then when they fried something you just bypassed it and drove the car away. I found the CDI System set like that when I pulled her car apart and then slipped in a slightly more modern CDI System that had 4 wires instead of 3 the extra one being another Earth that could be tied to the chassis anywhere. Or look at the other Multipoint Injection System used on Pug's and Volvos like the 240GL a Bosch KJetronic System which was all Mechanical. Had a Big Alloy plate in the Inlet airstream that was raised and lowered depending on vacuum and this altered the amount of Fuel dispended by the Fuel Distributer through constant feed Injectors. All of those early 70 systems had the same problem Bad Earth Connections developing causing the system to stop working. Fast forward 40 years and we find the same problem Bad Earth Connections developing but now they stop everything working from the Electric Windows to the Door Locks so when you get the Bad Earth you not only have the motor stop but you are now unable to open a door to get out or a window because the Bloody Doors don't open. You are stuck in the car sweating till you die of Dehydration or freeze to death depending on where you are. It was bad enough when we had Straight Mechanical Fuel Injection Systems and has only got worse with increased costs to the vehicles when it's actually cheaper to incorporate Electronics to replace Mechanical Devices. The only real advantage that has been brought about is the inability to select Reverse while the vehicle is moving forward but the weaker Automatic Transmissions have negated this improvement by being far more fragile and giving up the ghost sooner. Modern Cars have got way more Complicated, far more Fragile and just downright expensive. OH and remember a Nissan Add expounding the advantages of Multiplexing saying that there is only 1 wire going all around the car to run everything from lights, blinkers, brakes lights, well everything and that [b]"Simple System"[/b] broke far more often because you had complex electronics at every power take off unscrambling the signals circulating the car telling different things how to work. ;) Col

canewshound
canewshound

Hal 9000 is on the mark with cars that fail due to bad earth connections. BMW 3 series had faults in door actuators, could not unlock remotely, could only get front windows down and sunroof open, while parked in the rain! Crawled in thru front windows, car would not start, windows would not close, door would not unlock even with inside handle. Finally got key stored in remote control to open doors with the one key slot on the car on the drivers side. Dealer had not explaination on why this happened, other than "actuator" failures. This is a case of electronics getting in the way of using your car normally, with little operator override capability.