Sometimes, You're Better Off Being An Eager Follower, Not A Leader

"Does it pay today to be an early adopter in emerging technologies or to be a fast follower?" InformationWeek publisher Michael Friedenberg asks. The answer may surprise you.

April 20, 2004

3 Min Read
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I recently had the absolute pleasure and privilege of meeting and interacting with more than 800 business-technology executives--at the InformationWeek Spring Conference and the Oracle Executive Summit. These events engaged the mind and challenged traditional thinking on subjects such as offshore outsourcing, the use of business technology in developing global brands, and radio-frequency identification. Best of all, they allowed me and many others to listen to and learn from some of the most forward-thinking business-technology executives in the world today. It was a perfect time to reflect upon William Shakespeare's quote, "And he goes through life, his mouth open, and his mind closed." And because there were so many great ideas to learn and absorb, I tried hard not to align my behavior with Shakespeare's unflattering description.

For it truly was wonderful to hear that many of you are once again focusing your attention on growth and that to help propel yourselves forward, investment in emerging technologies is once again picking up. In fact, in a recent InformationWeek survey of 1,500 business-technology executives, we found the No. 1 concern is keeping up with emerging technologies.

And as I listened to various speakers and discussions throughout the week, I kept reflecting on that No. 1 priority and wondering why it came out ahead of the many other pressing issues you're all facing. Is it out of competitive fear? Or the fact that as much as 70% of current budgets go toward legacy systems, which makes investing in emerging technologies a pipedream? Or is it that your CEO wants to do business with Wal-Mart or the Department of Defense and you have no idea where to begin with RFID compliance?

All of these issues may or may not play into this fear, but author Don Tapscott at the Oracle Executive Summit creatively dismantled Nicholas Carr's theory that "IT Doesn't Matter" and made the powerful statement that in today's economy, "businesses are naked. And if you are naked, you better be buff." Well, the only way that organizations can truly be buff is to know what their customers' wants and needs are and to service them with absolute perfection. The way to achieve this goal is by properly aligning people, processes, and technology.

While everyone in the room was snickering at Carr's theory and nodding in approval of Tapscott's wisdom and feeling cautiously optimistic on IT spending, a fascinating contradiction arose. During this very same event, I had the opportunity to pose a question to the entire audience: "Does it pay today to be an early adopter in emerging technologies or to be a fast follower?" To my surprise, more than 80% answered "fast follower."So here we are at another crossroad. Our No. 1 fear is keeping up with emerging technologies, we agree that "IT Does Matter" and, in fact, see IT as an essential component to the future of our organization's growth, yet many companies would rather follow than lead. Hmmm--now call me silly but it seems clear to me that companies that take the lead in the ability to leverage IT for competitive advantage will stake incredible gains with their partners, distributors, and customers. I would hope that the 100 suppliers being asked to comply with Wal-Mart's RFID demands will see incremental growth opportunities not only with Wal-Mart but with other partners. As Burlington Northern Santa Fe CIO Jeff Campbell told the audience at the InformationWeek Conference, "What interests Wal-Mart fascinates us."

So, what do you think? Is being an early adopter in emerging technologies worth the risk? Are we still in the midst of a risk-averse culture? Or are you confident that you can get the same benefit that your competitors will receive by being a fast follower to them? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this because I must say that I always held the belief that it's better to lead and define the rules of the game than play by someone else's. However, I'm going to once again act upon Shakespeare's sound advice and listen and learn from you. You can reach me at [email protected].

Michael Friedenberg is a VP at CMP Media and the publisher of InformationWeek.

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