Hype Cycles vs Investment Cycles

I noticed that Gartner released its latest hype cycle for emerging technologies last week (see this Forbes article for a summary).  I love the Gartner hype cycles and I loathe the Gartner hype cycles all at the same time because to me they represent the best and worst in the IT industry all in the one graph.

I love them because they provide me with an excellent reference point on what is happening within the industry.  Reading the relevant hype cycle is a great way to get a quick update on what is likely to be considered the hot technologies that are emerging in my area of interest.  You could spend your whole life doing this (and some people do) or you can simply reference all their hard work.  As a CIO, no matter how interested I was in emerging technologies, the reality is there is far too much to do to spend much time on this pursuit.  The hype cycles (and competitive offerings) provide a quick way to understand what is coming and to start to think about the relevance of these technologies to my business.

I also love the name of the diagram, the Hype Cycle.  This name is a stroke of genius because it so accurately captures the psychological journey that we make when something new comes into our lives.  It’s a very human process.  Gartner has used this to apply to technology but it can apply to just about anything that we come into contact with as people.  I see it in the way my children (and I) play with their toys, the best thing ever when it is new, with most soon discarded once the hype is over.  I can also see it in the basic structure and progression of relationships.

You know how it works.  You meet, you flirt, court and all is wonderful as you rise to the peak of inflated expectations.  You then begin to discover that the other person is perhaps not as perfect as your initial thoughts and projections suggested.  Sure they still have many good qualities but they also have some really annoying habits.  You dip into the trough of disillusionment, many relationships (and many technologies) never make it out of this phase but those that do have a new maturity, more realistic than the past although likely still wrapped in some aspects of positive delusion, that’s why they last.  Relationships, like technologies, can move through these phases really quickly (Pokemon Go was declared dead by some analysts merely weeks after launch) or perhaps it can take years (including marriage and children).

I love the brilliance of the hype cycle in capturing this process but this is also one of the reasons why I hate it.   By so brilliantly mapping the process and presenting us with the information they actually help sustain and heighten the process.  They bring new immature products and services to the attention of the corporate executive table and boardroom and these companies then go, how can we use them?

This looks like a very legitimate question, particularly in these times of rapid change and unswerving focus on innovation, as the only way to survive and thrive.  Unfortunately I reckon for most companies, particularly large complex businesses, this is a very dangerous question indeed.  Why?  Because even if the they focus on the right technology (which is a gamble for most parts of the hype cycle) they are unlikely to have the skills and capabilities they need to effectively deploy this technology in a way that adds value to the organisation.  To deploy technology in a way that adds value you need two things.

The first of these is reasonably obvious.  You need to have very good technology capability across your business to be able to initiate, design, build, deploy and improve new unproven solutions.  This includes leadership that can envision a better future and invest in experiments with no certainty of return, a technology team that can effectively team to deliver the capability and a user community that can turn that capability into advantage.  Few organisations have these capabilities.  We still struggle to collaborate effectively on simple issues like how often we should release new functionality, how do we get the ERP (or name your favourite other system) to work for our users or what software we should select and implement to help the sales team, or the marketing team or the ….. pick your favourite team.  If we struggle to collaborate on these relatively simple issues how are we going to succeed on deploying immature technology through experimental processes.

The second is perhaps less obvious.  Delivering value from technology is less about the technology and more about the way you use technology to support you to fulfil your purpose or, if you prefer, to support you to strategically differentiate yourself from your competition.  In the end value is not derived from the technology, value is derived from capitalising on a new way to meet customers needs, a new way to express purpose.

This brings me to my final frustration with the hype cycle, it stops too soon.  It stops before the plateau of productivity.  I know the plateau is on the cycle however there are seldom any technologies there.  I often wonder if this is because few technologies actually make it as far as the plateau or have Gartner just lost interest?  I suspect it is a bit of both. The thing is the plateau is where mainstream adoption begins!  If I understand my hype cycle and my technology adoption life cycles then this means that about 85% of the market will adopt a technology either in the plateau (early mainstream adopters) or after that.  

While I am a big advocate of investing in differentiating capabilities most of the technologies we invest in are not actually differentiating so as a CIO I am just as likely to be interested in technologies off  loop to identify technologies that may help you to uniquely deliver on your purpose or differentiate you from your competition.  If you and your colleagues can’t see this very specific link to differentiated capabilities however then you shouldn’t invest in unproven technologies early in their development life cycle.  It’s better to wait until they mature and the value path has been established by others.

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