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A logical approach to understanding new technologies
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By Jonathan D. Andrews

When a new technology is introduced, how do you develop a good level of knowledge necessary to your role as professional advisor?

There are eight steps to gaining an introductory level of knowledge of a new technology, and these are displayed through three important stages when it comes to understanding and consulting on technology: comprehending the strategic relevance, researching the nature of the technology and its use, and learning from the experiences of others.

Benefits and Technology Overview

1. What are the strategic benefits of this new technology to the organization?

The first step toward adopting any new technology is to gain a thorough understanding of its strategic benefits. Although this may be obvious, strategic benefits may take second place to the intrinsic, technical merits offered in a vendor's solution.

When obtaining information about strategic benefits, don't limit the list to only those promoted or provided by vendors; an important source of strategic benefits lies in the experiences gained by others. Several organizations are likely to use a new technology in more ways than originally envisioned, and in doing so, will identify additional strategic benefits.

For example, the Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City started off with a narrow user base with their wireless initiative back in 1993. It was only when other users became aware of the new technology being used that additional strategic benefits were identified.

When Burlington, N.J.-based Burlington Coat Factory implemented business intelligence to help users prepare their own reports, Burlington did not expect to use the technology to monitor possible thefts of cash from its 315 retail stores across the country. Today, this application has become an important one for the organization.

For business purposes, strategic benefits are the first, primary consideration; other factors are secondary. If there are few strategic benefits that a new technology can bring to the organization, there is little reason for an organization to pursue it any further.

2. What are the key issues that have caused a demand for this new technology?

Identifying key issues that have created the demand tends to separate strategically beneficial, bona fide technologies from those that may be viewed as solutions looking for problems.

For example, Web-based conferencing has evolved for some time, but it was only after travel costs became so high and confidence in air travel was shaken so much by Sept. 11, that demand for this technology really began to accelerate. According to a survey by Wainhouse Research Inc., a Waltham, Mass.based research firm, the number of in-person meetings post9/11 dropped from 54 to 45 percent, while Web-conferencing increased by 61.5 percent.

For Intacct Corporation, the Los-Gatos, Calif.-based provider of Web-based enterprise accounting services, Web conferencing was the only way the company could market and support its services across the country. Intacct needed the capability to carry out anywhere, anytime training. Conferencing technology for this company was the only viable method that could be used to train and support large- volume, geographically-disparate groups.

The logical outcome of a new technology meeting an existing demand is the resulting benefit. Understanding the reasons that have driven a new technology may help provide substance to those benefits considered to be strategically viable.

Research and Planning

3. What does this new technology consist of? Technologies, described as "new," may be repackaged old technologies, or re- engineered, newer technologies from an unreceptive market. Understanding the differences is key. For example, often the xSP, or service provider industry, can be confusing because it operates in a very volatile market and has to redefine periodically what it actually does.

Understanding the original technology, and the environment in which it operates, can help place new applications into perspective. For example, an insight into the wireless spectrum and licenses can help differentiate 802.1 lb (or Wi-Fi) and 3G wireless technology. Why do they differ? Why does 802.1 lb enjoy such a grass roots success and why hasn't 3G taken off as expected?

Recognizing how new applications use the underlying technology provides useful insight. For example, Wi-Fi operates in an unlicensed part of the wireless spectrum, and 3G technology has to operate in a licensed part of the spectrum. That, in itself, is a major complication because of the need for 3G carriers to obtain, and invest heavily in, licenses.

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