You have probably heard the arguments against Advanced Technology Groups (ATGs). Critics argue that members of an ATG spend all day sitting in their ivory towers playing with their tech gadgets and spinning fantastical technology proposals that have little or no business relevance. But supporters disagree, arguing that ATGs are essential because of the growing dependence of business on technology.

ATGs help research emerging technologies and their potential impact on productivity and profitability. These groups also chart a corporate technology plan and oversee its implementation. If used effectively, ATGs are charged with implementing technologies that can help meet business goals.

For example, an ATG might consist of a group of eight to 20 people at a consulting services firm who are examining how technologies like e-mail, voicemail, groupware, and video teleconferencing can be best integrated to help the company increase its number of telecommuting employees and thereby cut costs.

The goals set for an ATG indicate that this type of group is key to keeping a business competitive. Yet often these groups are met with either resentment or indifference. Some companies have given up on the concept as a result. In this article, we will discuss how IT managers can help design ATGs that are successful.

Why ATGs sometimes fail
While some of the criticisms of ATGs are deserved, the organization should at times take the blame if its ATG fails. Here are two main reasons why ATGS don’t meet their goals.

  • Lack of priorities within the organization: The rest of the organization doesn’t believe that planning for future technology is a priority.
  • ATGs select useless technologies: The ATG recommends technology because it’s cutting-edge and fun, and the group doesn’t keep its focus on business goals.

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Lack of priorities within the organization
ATGs are paid to be forward observers, but while they are looking toward the horizon, business units are usually focused on the issues they are facing in the present, according to Ashley Parsons, IT Manager at San Francisco-based communications vendor CPS LinkCom.

“The typical reaction to an ATG proposal is usually, ‘Don’t bother me with things that may or may not happen three years down the line—I’ve got a problem with my network right now,’” Parsons said.

ATGs select useless technologies
Subhajit Bhatacherjee, Sr. Consultant at Edison, NJ-based Intelligroup Inc, said ATGs are often too skilled at making a strong case for a new technology despite the technology’s true value to the business.

“…people who work in ATGs tend to have the highest IQ and the lowest EQ. For them, the challenge is technology, and they will usually make a beeline for the most challenging—or coolest—technology out there and mess around with it.”

Bhatacherjee said in order to get funding and approval, ATGs will often cast the request for funding using all the right business keywords, borrowing anything that is relevant to their company that has appeared in the latest trade magazines. Management may recognize this type of request as a fad and be skeptical about the plan.

Others agree. “Those guys love technology for its own sake,” said Jimmy Gargan, a NJ-based business advisor. “Sometimes they come up with these great solutions for problems that don’t even exist.”

Getting it right
Not all ATGs are doomed. The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. first established its ATG in 1985. The group is still active and has enjoyed a far longer life span than many ATGs.

“When I first came to the company, there was a group that had been put into place to do this type of work,” said Vi Beaudreau, director of The Hartford Financial Services Group’s ATG. “Unfortunately, what they were about was publishing academic and theoretical white papers on emerging technologies. They were going about it the wrong way.”

Beaudreau said they made changes and began a process where they identified thought leaders across the company. Each thought leader was asked for ideas.

“In a typical year we’d solicit feedback from 20 executives, ask them to prioritize, take their feedback, [and] go back and tell them that based on their information, we were going to examine three areas [of technology],” he said.

Making it work for you
TechRepublic interviewed several experts who suggested a number of ways in which you can contribute to the success of an ATG:

Assign ATG members based on a mix of skills
Perhaps the most important factor determining the success or failure of an ATG is the composition of its members. Your best bet is to have “techpreneurs” heading the group.

Gargan describes “techpreneurs” as people “with a technology background and a solid knowledge of management.” He also recommends including team members with diverse experience.

“Throw in some fresh-from-college types. They usually offer a new perspective, and their creative thought processes are not confined by budgetary or practical management constraints.”

Beaudreau agrees and said that in his experience, Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers are the two most tech-literate demographic groups.

In addition, Beaudreau recommends selecting ATG members based on their skills in communications and salesmanship.

He cited a specific instance of how effective communication has helped The Hartford’s ATG achieve results.

“Our chairman was asked by the board of directors to come to the December board meeting and give them a briefing on what The Hartford’s e-business strategy was all about. The chairman went to the CIO, who said, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to tell them, because we don’t have one.’”

Beaudreau’s team was enlisted to present options in a hurry.

“Because of our ability to converse in the tongue of the business and not tech talk, our recommendations led to approval for funding for what later became a two-year, enterprise-wide, e-business initiative,” he said.

There are side benefits as well. Business heads become more tech-savvy, and techies learn the language of the business.

Immerse an ATG in business, not technology
Parsons suggests that ATGs be given a taste of the business aspect of an organization before they jump in with their technology solutions. Rather than confine their focus to technology, she said, ATGs should be given a chance to “familiarize themselves with different departments, seeking out specific business problems in each area. This will provide them with a perspective on the day-to-day bottlenecks that exist within the enterprise.”

Equipped with a first-hand view of business processes, an ATG will be able to seek out tech solutions that sell themselves.

“A full three-quarters of an ATG’s job is to sell its ideas,” Parsons said. “But those ideas are usually unproven, expensive, and involve high levels of change. They are bound to be met with resistance.”

Look for allies from top to bottom
According to Bhatacherjee, the ATGs shouldn’t expect that its ideas will be welcomed. Instead, members should do their own public relations work within the company.

“Regular interaction with middle- and upper-level management can help build early rapport—which is essential in ensuring a receptive ear for ideas. As an added bonus, regular interaction with end users of technology can help keep the ATG in touch with their needs and concerns.”

Require the ATG to finish what it started
An ATG must rid itself of the temptation to dump cutting-edge technology onto a company and then lose interest. In order to gain respect and stay effective, ATGs must make it their responsibility to see a proposal through to its logical conclusion. Conscientious efforts to stick with the IT department through implementation and beyond can provide the group with a valuable insight into the snafus that come with any new technology.

Bhatacherjee said the best advice he can offer an ATG is to “never lose sight of the reason for its existence—contribution to the corporate bottom line.”
For a smaller business, is it possible to create an ATG? Who should be responsible for this type of planning? Post a comment below or send us a letter.

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