Air Time: Your TWE Pocket Field Guide

Technical White Elephants, or TWEs, are the product of an ill-informed imagination that postulates a simple solution to a complex problem. Here's a field guide to help keep you out

March 30, 2006

3 Min Read
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The IT burial ground is littered with technological white elephants, TWE's if you will. These solutions once offered great promise; convincing a project team to give its blessing, and seemingly rational enough to get a manager to sign some purchase orders. I'm humble enough to admit that I've danced with the elephant more than once during the past 25 years or so. Still, it should be one of the most important career goals of any information professional to avoid such encounters. But if you do find yourself in close proximity, and with sufficient power, let's hope you have the smarts and the will to look that elephant in the eyes and pull the trigger.

Genus TWE

Defying all efforts to make them extinct, TWEs have developed into several major species. They gestate in many ways--most commonly, they are the product of an ill-informed imagination that postulates a simple solution to a complex problem. Here's a field guide to help keep you out of trouble.

» Simple Solution
This kind of TWE is deceptively complex, often because the problem it is designed to solve is so intractable. Many network management systems and security offerings fit the bill. These TWEs are particularly sinister as they often require an investment of hundreds or thousands of staff-hours, costs that make management cringe and can crush the morale of the front line staff who are asked to make work what can't be made to work.

» Orphaned System
The orphaned system TWE is almost impossible to avoid, as effective solutions often fall into this category. Vendors go out of business, mergers takes place, and vendors encounter financial challenges and must restructure. The probability of getting stuck with this sort of TWE is often related to an organization's willingness to take risks with emerging technologies. When you live on technology's leading edge, you dramatically increase the probability that the systems you acquire will be orphaned. That's a classic risk-benefit trade-off. Likewise, when you do business with start-ups, realize that companies with great ideas often fail, and those that succeed are often swallowed up by dominant competitors. Sometimes those competitors make acquisitions to better market an innovative solution, but more often they cannibalize it, forcing you to migrate to their preferred offering. Unfortunately, while looking to large companies for all your systems reduces the probability of getting stuck with orphaned technology, it's no sure bet.» Incremental Monster
This overwhelming TWE is usually the product of internal miscalculations facilitated by dysfunctional internal processes. The incremental monster often starts as a tactical solution, implemented to meet an immediate need , without adequate consideration to long-term consequences. Sometimes, the TWE is born of an ill-conceived pilot project that failed to most observers, but couldn't be killed because it solved a problem for someone important. The lesson: Even the worst IS project often has its champion--diabolically, it's often the staff that derive job security from the technical mastery of an inherently poor design. It's also common for incremental monsters to be sustained by capital budgeting systems that make it impossible to do anything but patch holes in what everyone agrees is a sinking ship.

Watch Where You Step

An IT shop's effectiveness in avoiding TWEs is a powerful indicator of its value to the enterprise. Not only does the absence of such disasters correlate with the effectiveness of IT, but it enhances the relationships between business managers and IT--because dealing with a TWE is usually disruptive to business.

There's no easy way to avoid TWEs. It requires leaders with a realistic understanding of the power and limits of technology, a reasonable grasp of organizational dynamics--especially those related to risk--and informed experience navigating the ever-changing tides of the technology market place. Keep your eyes peeled.

Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]1022

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