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The best tech investment I never made: Four CIOs' tales

Minda Zetlin | Aug. 14, 2012
IT leaders must learn to tell whether a new technology will transform their businesses -- or just become the next boondoggle. Four CIOs offer their perspectives.

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.


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