Thoughtlet: evaluation of technology

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Stunned and dismayedRecently my wife said to me that she wanted to take an almost Amish approach to the evaluation of new technical bits and pieces that we, meaning I, bring into the house. Roughly translated, does this product X increase our quality of life sufficiently to warrant the expense.

“GASP!”

Could this be at all possible? I mean I love technical toys, in fact my job is almost (OK, previous job more so that this one) defined on the fact that new technology must be investigated and tinkered with to see what you can make it do.

Just over a year ago I bought Sarah an iPhone, despite a perfunctory reception, if I were to take it away I’d have my fingers slapped; it has become an integral piece of technology used for everything from phone calls, to emails, to shopping lists and even recording those crazy, yet special, moments with our son. So surely she of all people must understand that?

In general, when I evaluate a piece of Technology, I start with something similar to the below approach (this isn’t original , this an approach similar to how schools evaluate teaching and the use of technology in the classroom):

  1. Is the technology being used “Just because it’s there”?
  2. Is the technology allowing you to do Old things in Old ways?
  3. Is the technology allowing you to do Old things in New ways?
  4. Is the technology creating new and different experiences?

Is the technology being used “Just because it’s there”?

It is effectively dabbling with tools because they are there. This can mean that whatever it is is a time vampire, sucking up all your valuable time as you work out if it fits your needs, current and potential. Businesses, unless they have a large development budget, tend not to fall into this category. In this instance there are no benefits, tangible or otherwise.

This tends to be my approach at home, but probably not a good starting point when developing a business case. Sure after some investigation you may have discovered that it falls into one of the below categories, but remember as the old adage goes “time is a valuable commodity”.

Is the technology allowing you to do Old things in Old ways?

This can mean using an LCD to display corporate information instead of a notice board, or moving from file shares to a basic Share-Point installation. This is great, if what you have is broken and it needs to be fixed or replaced. You have a stated need and justifications on the tangible benefits are sufficient. But it doesn’t get much out of your investment.

Is the technology allowing you to do Old things in New ways?

I personally think that this is a good starting point for most Technology discussions. You can start with familiar ground an build from there. What are the obvious gains of revamping the way things are done? Quicker input, faster access, better trending. the list goes on. The most important thing is to capture all of these things, look at how to measure them and then assign priorities or weights. This could include both tangible and intangible benefits. Are you picking up a theme here?

Is the technology creating new and different experiences?

This is where I believe all the work is in, when trying to justify the expense, and where a lot of intangibles come into play. Looking at the enhanced experience the technology can offer and the potential benefits, doesn’t translate well if there isn’t an obvious need.

A good example is collaboration tools; If you were to introduce a Wiki or even WebEx to an environment, that has never dealt with them before, how would you go about describing the benefits, tangible and intangible?

Intangible what?

This got me thinking: How do you justify the intangible benefits to someone, especially if they are non technical?

Firstly there are the tangible benefits are those those that are readily measurable. The intangible benefits are sometimes considered those that are abstract or immeasurable, or at least extremely hard to measure, yet provide value none the less. Like supplying a bowl of fruit for staff in the lunch room, how does the benefits of a bowl of fruit outweigh the cost of providing it?

When looking to justify a piece of Technology with intangible benefits what approach should you take? Here are a couple of simple approaches:

  1. Should intangibles be considered secondary? –  Keeping the intangibles separate from, and weighted differently than, the tangible benefits in a business case is probably a good start.
  2. Should they go in a presentation? – If you’re going to put them into presentations, then they should be in the business case itself. Random “cool stuff” isn’t a good way to win purse string holders over.
  3. When should they be dropped? – As above, intangible is used as a synonym for immeasurable.  If you cannot devise an appropriate method to measure the intangible, perhaps it is time to remove the intangible or further discount it. Also if the intangible benefits are too obscure, where they don’t necessarily fit into the businesses model, culture or similar.

What to do:

I’ve meandered about a little with this, but it is such a huge area that I struggled to break it down into a single blog entry.

So how will I modify my own approach to technology adoption? Honestly, I will definitely pause a little and consider where it fits in the use scale.

My response to “should you bother with intangible benefits?” is that it depends. It depends on a lot of things. Primarily it depends on the audience. The value that people attribute to something that is not core to their requirements, yet makes some sense that there is value to be had, varies from nothing to a lot. Don’t hinge the entire argument, or business case, on them.