Five Technology Truths: #3 Technology Debates Are Religious Wars

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Rails vs. Java. Drupal vs. Alfresco. Microsoft vs. Opensource Anything.

The worst situation is when the CEO has just spent a transatlantic flight sitting next to the CMO of Microsoft. For the next two months you’ll hear nothing but Sharepoint.

 With client after client we participate in the evaluation of dozens of technologies. And though every client’s situation is different, one thing remains the same: Technology discussions are religious debates. Sometimes religious wars. Belief always enters the picture when facts fail.

 So why do the facts fail?

 1. Too much complexity

 Most technology evaluations are far too technically detailed for the average person to understand. Evaluating a CMS can produce decks and decks of comparison grids, this feature versus that, this performance stat versus the other. The key decision makers who normally have a 15-second attention span cannot possibly weigh and digest it all. So people fall back on opinion or a pet “expert.”

 2. No control group

 In a technology rollout, no one can ever run a control. You can’t adopt Oracle eBusiness Suite and in some parallel universe adopt SAP, let it run a few years and see how it all worked out.

 So since you can never have all the facts, here’s what happens next: The company’s decision-making stakeholders break into factions, each with its own passionate belief that their technology preference is the right one. I’ve even seen expert witnesses brought in from each side like an IT evaluation had somehow morphed into an episode of Colombo.

 What can you do?

A. Get perspective

 Or course you have to do due-diligence and compare features and functions of systems. However, the idea that someone has the “right” answer on a complicated technology decision is a fantasy. At some level, you are always going to be making a best guess on the information available. Consultants don’t change that. Two years of research doesn’t change it. In fact, I have seen companies so paralyzed by this reality that they do, in fact, spend two years in analysis only to find that by the time they are finished the technology has changed. Something new has become available. Then they go on to evaluate that.

 B. Make technology passion unacceptable

 I like passion. Particularly in fellow Yankee fans. However, good technology leaders should frown on a team member who is too passionate about a particular technology. Why? It’s the hallmark of an amateur. Most technologists understand that tech is tech. Every system has its pros and cons and there’s no perfect answer. If a person is so out-of-his-senses passionate about a particular technology, he should go work for whoever developed it, and leave the rest of us alone.

 The truth is technologies catch fire, wane, and sometimes catch fire again. Right now Drupal is ablaze and a lot of people are rushing to adopt it. But if history is any guide, within a few years something else will be the hottest thing and Drupal will be viewed as simply a good technology among others.

 C. Let the crowd have what they want

 If there is a lot of passion toward a particular technology, the worst thing you can do is to fight City Hall. Here’s why.

 Say my sister wants a Mac. But I know that given her usage, and the software her son uses, and so on, she would really be better off with a PC. It’ll cost less, run faster, and she’ll have fewer issues.

 So she gets the PC on my advice. And something goes wrong (because this is technology and something always goes wrong.)

 “Stupid PC!” she shouts. “This would never have happened with the Mac!”

 Hit rewind: “Sister, dear, get the Mac. It’ll make you happy.”

 Now, something goes wrong. Now she says, “Poor little Mac. It was trying its best.”

 Companies generally have more tolerance for the foibles of systems they believe in. Sure, it would be better to subtract the passion, add some perspective, and eliminate the religious fervor. But when you can’t, the only choice may be to go with the flow.

 (Excerpted from AdMonster’s Keynote Speech, 3/7/11)

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