I've been considering an electric car recently. I don't have a horse in the "climate change" debate or any animosity toward the oil industry (several of whom have been some of my favorite clients), but I find the technology interesting, and my driving model is a near-perfect fit since most of my trips are short and generally in the direction of the airport. Once one delves into the details of electric cars, it's easy to forget the whole exercise entirely. Unless you're prepared to spend enough to buy a small house, all the current vehicles represent a series of compromises.
Furthermore, the threat of disruptive technologies lies around every bend. Some Electric Vehicle (EV) proponents are fully convinced next-generation batteries are right around the corner and will offer triple the range at a third of the cost, while others are holding out for a promised Tesla that delivers the goods of the current Model S at nearly a third of the price. There's an obvious parallel to enterprise technology, where "Version Next" is always a few short months away, and offers all the missing features of this generation at a compelling cost.
Avoiding the test dummy
Perhaps one of the most dire situations one can end up in, whether purchasing an EV or enterprise technology, is that of the early adopter, or "test dummy," who pays a premium price for a technology that ultimately fails. Even the most respected software and technology vendors routinely put out products that don't deliver on their promises and end up as unsupported "legacy" items that leave customers stranded and paying twice for functionality that replaces the failed product.
Before buying into the promises of a new technology, determine whether you're playing the role of test dummy. This may be an acceptable choice if you're fully aware of the reality and risks of the project, and when vendor and customer acknowledge that one is playing the role of test dummy, preferential pricing or other incentives can help mitigate the risks of a completely failed technology. Just as governments are subsidizing risky early generation EVs, so too should you expect some form of offsetting compensation, monetary or otherwise, for playing the role of test dummy.
Solar panel syndrome
The diametric opposite of playing the role of test dummy is a parallel to the solar panel industry. I remember as a child being wowed by a tiny solar panel that spun a small fan, and hearing about how the efficiency of panels was slated to rise exponentially, while costs would fall to commodity levels. While this technology has certainly advanced, we still have yet to see the promised "tipping point," even as proponents profess the same dreams of two decades ago. With every technology, whether in the enterprise or consumer sector, there's always a better, faster, cheaper version right around the corner, suggesting that you'd be a fool to purchase now.
Waiting for Version Next might be a legitimate strategy when you've seen demonstrations of a desirable capability from a vendor with a track record of consistent delivery. However, there's also an opportunity cost to waiting that should factor into your decision. Sitting on the sidelines waiting for Version Next might allow a competitor to surpass your capabilities, or create maintenance expenses that outweigh the cost of implementing a current technology, and then upgrading later.
When foregoing a purchasing or implementation decision due to the promise of Version Next, take the time to document what promised capabilities were behind the decision, and quantify the opportunity costs of waiting. You may discover that your current technologies are actually quite sufficient, and waiting for Version Next is really an excuse for a shopping expedition that was ultimately unnecessary. Or, you may discover that there are deeper causes ranging from risk adversity to an inability for key leaders to make a decision, problems that should be mitigated regardless of the ultimate outcome of your technology purchasing decision.
Situational awareness makes for a thoughtful decision
I've decided to delay my EV purchase in pursuit of Version Next. While I don't buy the claims of magical range increases and bargain basement prices, the fact of the matter is that I have a functional (albeit creaky and un-stylish) vehicle, and we're in the midst of auto show season, with at least one major EV manufacturer set to unveil a major upgrade to a flagship vehicle. If my car were on its last legs, I might use that information to drive better pricing rather than waiting around for Version Next.
Apply similar rationale to your technology purchases, combining an investigation into the drivers for your purchasing decision with what's going on in the industry and with your competitors. Even if you ultimately decide to play the role of the test dummy or spend years on the sidelines waiting for each iteration of Version Next, a thorough understanding of your circumstances and the larger market will make for a thoughtful and effective decision.
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 over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.