The Best Tech Investment I Never Made: Four CIOs' Tales

A few years ago, when Bill Weeks was CIO at a leasing company, a big vendor pitched some software intended to manage leasing throughout Europe. Weeks was skeptical. "We noticed that half the stuff they were showing us was PowerPoint slides and not actual functionality," he says. "We decided it wasn't strong enough to run a business on."

He and his team decided to pass.

It's the kind of decision that CIOs have to make all the time. With the pace of tech innovation growing ever faster, IT leaders find themselves under increasing pressure to make one difficult decision over and over: adopt a promising new technology and risk the unknowns that a new implementation brings, or decline -- and risk letting their companies fall behind the technological curve. The wrong decision could destroy a career.

Saying no will often leave a CIO wondering what might have been. But in the case of the leasing software, Weeks got a definite answer. Some time after taking a pass on the system, he took a job at a different company -- one that had already implemented that software. Sure enough, "the vendor had oversold and underdelivered," he says. "It was supposed to work in all of Europe, but they had only completed the program for one country, and even with that one we needed manual workarounds."

Timing matters. You look at a product and say, 'Good idea, but not now.' Rob Meilen, CIO, Hunter Douglas North America

Weeks spent the next five years working with the vendor as it gradually developed its product to the point that it offered the functionality originally promised. "Fortunately, the CEO had mandated that this be a fixed-bid contract," he recalls. "The contract said what the software was supposed to do, and we would have an annual conversation about how it wasn't quite there yet."

Manual workarounds were put in place initially, and a triage approach was established with the vendor, so that the problems that were the biggest productivity drains would be fixed first. The other costs were people and travel. The business unit was headquartered near London, and most of the IT team was based in the U.S., so travel to the U.K. was required several times a year.

The original decision to forgo the leasing software "was one of those cases where you say, 'Wow, I made the right decision!' Although I wound up inheriting the problem anyway," says Weeks, who today is senior vice president and CIO at SquareTwo Financial, a Denver-based asset recovery and management company with annual revenue of about $227 million.

Unfortunately, it's rare that a new technology is as clearly not ready for prime time as the leasing software that Weeks encountered. Most products and services look good -- on paper. And most come with clear case studies that show how they will help boost your company's ROI -- again, on paper.

In the real world, those calculations can be tough to make. Nevertheless, IT executives must decide every day whether to invest in a great-sounding new technology, or leave it alone. Sometimes, products that are well designed and work great -- and might even create value for your company -- are still not a good investment. Here are four good reasons to say "Thanks, but no thanks!" to an enticing new offering.

It's Too Early

"Timing matters," says Rob Meilen, vice president and CIO at Hunter Douglas North America. The Pearl River, N.Y.-based company, which makes window treatments, is part of the Hunter Douglas Group, headquartered in the Netherlands, with annual revenue of more than $2.4 billion and more than 17,000 employees worldwide. "You look at a product and say, 'Good idea, but not now,'" Meilen says. Though he does point out that "no may not be the same as never."

Before working at Hunter Douglas, Meilen was CIO at a national retail chain. In that position, he chose not to adopt an early version of Google Wallet. "The technology had some promise, but it wasn't well thought through," he says. "It would have worked well on the consumer's phone, but Google was unprepared for how it was going to connect back to my enterprise systems."

In addition, he noted, most smartphones at the time didn't contain the Near Field Communication, or NFC, chips required for Google Wallet to work. "I look back at that, and it was the right use of our resources at the time," he says. "That's not to say that same piece of technology wouldn't be a good fit somewhere down the road, as NFC chips in phones become more common."

In general, CIOs agree, it's probably best not to be a truly early adopter. "A lot of organizations I work with don't want to be on the bleeding edge," says Rachel Dines, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Before there are a lot of positive-use cases to review, there's no good scientific way to sort out the hype from the reality. So while there's a lot of benefit in that approach, there's a huge risk, too."

Kevin Roberts, CIO at Abilene Christian University in Texas, which has about 4,700 students, knows about early adoption risks firsthand. "We made a big run at document imaging," he says. "This was a long time ago, in the late 1990s. We had the whole paperless office mentality. We thought, 'We'll scan everything and sit at our computers and pull up whatever we need.'"

The problem, he says, was tagging documents with metadata that would make them easy to find. "We spent a lot of money on this, and we had to walk away -- we couldn't make it work," Roberts says. Today, he adds, the university has more-robust document scanning and tagging capabilities, so some of that dream of a paperless office is now coming true. But "13 years ago, it wasn't the right time," he says.

This story, "The Best Tech Investment I Never Made: Four CIOs' Tales" was originally published by CIO-India.

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