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Commentary & Analysis

Technology Is Not the Answer

Technology on its own cannot solve your business challenges. It can play a part, it can enable your strategy, it can free up your labor but the real benefits of technology come from the people and the processes around it.

By Jennifer Matt
Published: February 17, 2012

When we buy this technology, partner with this technology company, implement this technology, deploy this technology – then everything will change. Revenues will increase, costs will decrease, and shareholder value will skyrocket.

I wish. 

Technology is not THE answer. I guess I’m paraphrasing Nicholas G. Carr who wrote the now famous Harvard Business Review article titled IT Doesn’t Matter back in May 2003.

Within the context of the print industry, technology isn’t the answer either. Technology is a potential component of the answer. It’s almost as if technology has risen to the level of religion, unlimited potential based on faith.

Again and again I hear the words, “we just need to buy technology that can enable us to sell this online and then poof we’ll go from $X to $XX,XXX,XXX overnight. Or a less dramatic example, if we had a management information system (MIS) we could control waste, manage labor, and cut our costs. Do you see how these statements are making technology the answer?

Yes, technology can make an impact, but the real difference is always about the strategy and people using the technology, not the technology itself. I’ve witnessed different print organizations buy the exact same product, from the exact same vendor, target the exact same market, and get wildly different results.

What’s the difference?

The three most common differences I see between the successful companies and the not so successful companies are:

1)   Strategy

2)   Focus

3)   Execution

Strategy

Some organizations confuse technology as the strategy. “Our vision is to buy this technology.” Oops, that’s not strategy, that’s a procurement task. Other organizations believe that shopping is a key part of building their strategy, translation – let’s talk to all the potential vendors and then see if they have something we can use? Oops, that’s not strategy, that’s a waste of time.

Vendors are doing their job, when they listen to your needs and figure out how their product fits your needs. If you go into a vendor meeting looking for a strategy, one will be created for you. Guess what? If the vendor is any good, it will match their product perfectly (not exactly where you want your business strategy to be driven from).

Business strategy comes from intimate, accurate and timely empirical information about your business, your market, your available resources, and your customers. Then and only then do you go looking for technology that can support your vision.

I never recommend sitting through a generic technology sales demonstration; you don’t want to know what the supplier wants you to see; you want to see what is relevant to your documented strategy. For example, if your web to print strategy is to launch a new B2C site that targets your local SMB market, then in order to evaluate vendors based on your strategic objectives you have to share those objectives with the vendors before the demo.

For a B2C site servicing the SMB market, the vendor would have to support (at a minimum), anonymous shopping, secure credit card as a payment method, accurate shipping and tax calculations, and have a gallery of designs for the different SMB vertical markets in your area. Strategy drives, technology is the passenger.

Focus

There are so many things we could do. There are a lot of good ideas. Doing less is a differentiator. Steve Jobs showed us that. In his biography, they talked about how he pushed his organization for new, innovative ideas and then ruthlessly decided they could only do three of them. I have seen organizations “focusing” on hundreds of things at once. Using the words “focus” and “hundreds” creates a powerful contrast.

The decisions about what not to do are more important than what you choose to do. It’s actually easier to say you’re going to do something than to consciously say you’re not going to do it. I used to think being comprehensive and thorough were really important (do as many things as possible). Now I understand that focus is what’s really important. 

Execution

So you’ve created a strategy, you’ve decided what to focus on, now it’s about people and process. There are two people I find helpful when thinking about execution. One is Jim Collins. His research, his examples, and his books are brilliant. I’m reading Great By Choice right now. He gives examples of paired companies operating in the same environment, under chaotic market conditions, where one company was wildly successful and the other failed. My takeaway from Collins on execution is the idea of a ruthless pursuit of a well understood goal; this was one of the differentiators between the winners and the losers. Gordon Moore at Intel pushed his organization to innovate on a targeted timeframe. Moore’s Law sounds like something that was created based on historical observation, in reality it was based on the Intel leader setting a goal and his people and processes executing on it. Does your company have a clearly understood goal that everyone is marching towards?

David Allen is the other person I find extremely helpful when it comes to the area of execution. His brilliant book, Getting Things Done changed the way I work. His thinking around projects contributes greatly to the topic of execution. Allen believes that you have to think about projects first from the standpoint of “outcomes” This helps us execute. I don’t know how many times I’ve been a part of a project where I’ve asked the question “why are we doing this?” midstream and got a lot of confused responses.

What’s our desired outcome? What would wild success feel like? Describe it. Write it down. Before you start assigning tasks, rounding up resources, making plans, getting budget dollars – define the outcome. There is such power in this thinking, especially if you do it as a team, because once you define an outcome – you all have the same vision of what success means. What could be more important as it pertains to execution?

Technology absolutely plays a part in almost everything we do in our businesses today. Don’t get blinded by the newest toy, business is more about strategy, people and processes than it is about technology.

 

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.

 

Discussion

By Howard Owen on Feb 17, 2012

Thank you for the reminder about business fundamentals Jennifer. Many of us wear multiple hats in our business and it's not uncommon to temporarily forget principles we've learned until after the purchase of a new technology.

 

By Jennifer Matt on Feb 17, 2012

Howard - we all get blinded, I think its because the media loves to hype technology and of course the crazy valuations of technology companies feeds the flames.

I absolutely love Apple's success (not just b/c I love their products) but because they are winning because of strategy and execution. They made design their strategy and then executing flawlessly on it in a focused way. They don't even talk about features/functionality anymore - they just show us pretty pictures, tell us how we can make our lives easier by having their products in hand and we all keep buying at the prices that make every other technology company drool.

 

By Stan Anglen on Feb 17, 2012

Great reminder, "What would wild success feel (look)like".

Thanks

 

By Erik Nikkanen on Feb 17, 2012

Maybe technology is the answer.

Of course Jennifer, what you have described in your post makes perfect sense and I agree with it. I just come to a slightly different conclusion.

I just think that having the right people, thoughtful strategies, focused goals and well executed activities leads to buying or developing technologies that have the most impact.

I view technologies as being computer software and hardware, equipment and methods within the business or within the product.

Historically I can not see too many situations where having more effective technologies have not succeeded to be more beneficial than having less effective technologies.

To develop or obtain more effective technologies for a particular business requires the path you describe but I would say the real goal is to get those technologies. Once in place, they create an advantage.

I would also add that strategy, focus and execution are requirements but are not sufficient. Knowledge is required as a guide. Valid knowledge.

And of course there is a different view on how success is obtained. It is convenient to think that there are formulas that make some companies successful while others are not.

The book Good to Great is one example of a lot of research done on companies to try to find a common way of working that helped them succeed. A very demanding definition of success was used and a small group of companies met this level. I think it was about 10 companies.

At the time the book came out and a few years after, the logic seemed to make sense but shortly after that, most of these companies failed badly. Their method of operation did not protect them.

The point I am trying to make is that success might not be totally related to how you do things. Luck or probability might have just as much or even more to do with whether a company is successful or not.

There are too many variables in business that can affect outcomes. Trying to see a pattern in work methods that lead to success might be a fools game.

I am all for the idea of strategy, focus and execution to make knowledgeable improvements. They can improve the probability of success.

But maybe what is most important is the business mind that can sense an opportunity and has vision on how to take advantage of it.


 

By Chuck Gehman on Feb 20, 2012

Your basic premise is right on. But I think we have to be careful with this. First, I think Nicholas Carr was wrong on many counts, and even way back in 2003 when he published that, a lot of smart people took issue with that idea.

Since then, people like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg have emerged as world leaders. You would have a difficult time convincing either of them that technology isn't the answer. In fact, it's fairly clear from how both Facebook and Google operate, and even Apple to a large extent, that technology is the answer.

However, a technology solution or a new technology product can't come into being without strategy, focus and execution.

In today's digital economy, ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is dependent on being able to deploy the technology, get it in front of customers, and have it be great so they adopt it. If you are business person with a great strategy, but you don't have fluency with the technology, I'm sorry, you aren't going to make it. So it is, as you say, about people and processes-- technical people and technical processes.

 

By Eddy Hagen on Feb 21, 2012

The statement should be rephrased in my opinion: "Technology is not the *single* answer". Technology is a part of the answer, even an important part of the answer in our industry. But strategy, focus, execution, plus education and knowledge about your clients and their needs are also a part of the answer. When all of those aspects are not in balance, failure is just around the corner.

 

By Charles Bohm on Feb 22, 2012

I would add a couple of points along with Strategy, Focus and Execution. The first beign Ownership. Any new technology coming into a company needs a champion to drive it to the rest of the plant, someone that fully understands it and knows how it will benefit the company. And it should be noted that this is not always the same person who made the decision to purchase.

The second, and this could fall under Execution, is Follow-up. As with any technology you need to stay on top of the latest releases and make sure you are taking advantage of what they have to offer. How many times have you seen a totally outdated technology being used that could have easily been upgraded?

 

By Jennifer Matt on Mar 01, 2012

Charles,

Ownership is a great addition to this thread. A technology is generic, when you integrate it into your business it becomes YOURS. Then your people know more about how its being applied then the technology vendor.

The upgrade path is ongoing, software is such a moving target these days. I find that most people utilize about 10-15% of the technology they have. The vendors are in such a feature war that the 1,000s of features are deployed and only a fraction of them are actually utilized broadly.

Thanks,

Jen

 

By Jennifer Matt on Mar 01, 2012

Erik Nikkanen,

You have to read Jim Collins latest book "Great by Choice" - it is awesome. The key is that companies like sports teams have dynasties (e.g. UCLA Basketball during Wooden's time or the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan's time). What they do before or after the dynasties isn't relevant, Jim Collins studied how dynasties happen and sustained themselves.

The luck thing is covered in his new book Great by Choice" he defined luck events and then evaluated companies who had more/less luck. Luck isn't the factor either, ironically the factors are very boring.

Figure out what works, understand why it works, stick to it, and change it only when it really makes sense to do so. Southwest airlines has a 10 point execution plan - I think he said it changed ONLY 15% over 30 years!

Technology is part of it. The title of my article was intended to fired people up ;-) Technology decisions are critical but I was trying to make the point that buying technology cannot be your strategy. The technology has to ENABLE the strategy.

Thanks for commenting, reach out to me when/if you read the book Good by Choice.

Jennifer

 

By Jennifer Matt on Mar 01, 2012

Chuck Gehman,

The leaders of technology companies are making a huge impact because they are changing what's possible for all of us in our business lives.

As this discussion pertains to the print industry and the use of technology I was trying to communicate that buying technology cannot be the only thing you do. Just like buying a new press without a plan on how to fill it with work would be insane!

Jen

 

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