Lessons learned the hard way — a Microsoft alum's guide to buying and implementing technology

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ACI Learning Chief Marketing Officer Scott Horn has decades of experience at the intersections of technology and marketing. Throughout that career, he has compiled notes — based on his experience — on making good technology investments for business. Here is what he has learned...

A good technology choice is one that has the capabilities needed with the productivity required at a cost point that works. Outcome = capabilities + productivity + cost.

When a bad process meets a great technology, you get a more expensive, more painful process. Redesign the process before adding technology. Too often, people think adding technology will solve their problem — it won’t — it just makes it a more expensive problem.

Not all processes should be automated with technology. Good candidates for automation are high frequency, low variance processes with clearly defined steps. Start with the more expensive ones and then work down the list. Low frequency processes are best left to people unless they’re extraordinarily expensive.

A well-defined process can be expressed as “if condition A then take action X else if condition B then take action Y” and so on. If a process can’t be written out that clearly then more work is needed to define it before automating it or investing in technology for it.

In fact, effective technologies can be made into expensive messes without clear processes and thoughtful design. CRM software is a great example — many companies take a perfectly good technology platform and reduce it to a perfectly useless CRM with inaccurate, out of date information and wildly inefficient design. It’s just like a hammer.
You can use a hammer to drive a nail or to accidentally hammer your thumb. Same hammer. Don’t blame the hammer, fix the process.

Don’t ever buy a technology without having an internal person that has ownership of it as part of their job and knows how to use it. Avoid the trap of thinking any technology is so easy someone will just figure it out. Not without training and experience.

Understand the cost curve for the technology you’re buying. A technology that is 10% cheaper to buy and 10X harder to use will quickly cost more than a technology that is 10% more expensive and 10X easier to use for a lot of people. Don’t underestimate the importance of self-serve for technologies that are used broadly. If you buy a technology platform that requires highly specialized — and expensive — expertise, then you are limiting the scale you can operate. You’ll quickly end up with more people needing help than resources that can provide that help.

Note: The last two comments don’t conflict. A technology can be easy to use and enable self-serve for a broad set of tasks, but you still need expertise in administering and managing that technology.

Avoid building custom applications and extensions for any technology as much as possible. The more vanilla and out of the box your implementation is the easier it is to maintain and migrate it forward to future versions. If your solution requires a lot of custom application work, then that’s a warning that you picked the wrong technology. And it that decision will get more expensive over time because you’ll have to update all your custom applications every time your technology vendor decides – without your input — to make changes that break it.

Be wary of technology vendors and consultants who can’t easily explain things or even worse say that everything you want to do requires lots of development time. They either don’t understand the technology they’re promoting or they’re looking at you as a nice revenue stream. Run from both.

Allowing “black boxes” — systems and technology you don’t understand or that no one you work with seems to understand is a catastrophe waiting to happen. A day will come when that system or technology blows up and no one will know what to do. Don’t tolerate black boxes ever — everything system and tech should be transparent and clearly understood.

When you get an unexpected outcome from your systems and tech you should be able to look at your system and know why it happened so you can make the necessary changes. If you don’t understand why it happened, then you have a very big problem.

Technology platforms — like almost all big scale markets — consolidate around a small set of winners. Markets for CRMs and Marketing Automation Platforms look a lot like the markets for airlines, banks and phone companies. They all have 2 – 3 big winners that have lots of 3rd party technology integrations and broad developer communities. The benefit of these solutions is that they are relatively cheap to integrate, and expertise is widely available and relatively inexpensive.

Teams tend to pick the tech they’ve used previously. When you let a team pick a tech that isn’t one of the 2 – 3 big winners in a space then you end up with an increasingly expensive solution and a team that has fantastic job security.

The longer you wait to move off a bad technology platform the more expensive it is. Kicking the can down the road for a while increases costs exponentially as more things get integrated into the platform, more processes get built around it and more people become familiar with it.

Most technology failures are due to not understanding the total cost. Total cost includes the direct licensing costs and all the development and maintenance costs to keep the tech going – whether internal or external. It also includes a productivity tax.

The classic phrase “no one ever got fired for buying X” can be dangerous. Maybe the companies that bought that perfectly good technology had internal capabilities to run it or lots of $ to hire external consultants to get it going. The technology may be fine, it just may not be fine for you.



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