The pleasantly painful appeal of early adoption in IT

If there’s one thing I can’t stand hearing anymore, it’s that failing to adopt a new technology means you’ll be “left behind.” 

This adage, which I remember being used for getting on board with e-commerce in the dot-com boom, then in the Web 2.0 rage, and now amid the social media mania, has become so trite I hesitate to draw attention to it. If there is a hype cycle, this prophesy is a key part of it. And yet, as I read a recent article by Timothy Taylor called “The Pain Principle” in the Globe & Mail’s Report on Business magazine, I had a little realization.

In the article, Taylor discusses the strange way in that some organizations – Apple is one of his examples – make it extremely difficult to obtain their products, thereby creating more excitement and demand. He explores why, and cites the work of “neuromarketers” who help explain why there is such pleasure in the unobtainable:

It’s a matter of cognitive dissonance resolution, drawing on the 1950s-era research by Elliot Aronson of Stanford and Judson Mills of the U.S. Army Leadership Human Research Group. Their seminal study, “The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group,” suggests that the harder it is to join a group, the more individuals value the membership. In other words, our brains convince us that hard-to-obtain objectives have added value simply to justify the extra effort we've expended in getting them.

That might be some comfort to those in enterprise IT who soldiered on during nightmarish, multi-year ERP or service-oriented architecture projects, only to realize later that perhaps it wasn’t entirely worth it after all. But people aren’t stupid, and Taylor acknowledges as much: “In the relative-wealth world, consumers don't compete to acquire the most,” he writes. “They compete to acquire what others would wish to acquire, in order to set themselves apart and above.”

Are companies any different? Not when you listen to the chorus of voices urging every firm under the sun to cultivate their presence on Facebook, Twitter and so on. The same goes for cloud computing and software as a service. What’s interesting is that at the enterprise IT level, the status symbols are not necessarily products so much as technology delivery and distribution models.

Sometimes it’s worth being an early adopter, of proving your organization is at the forefront of change rather than reluctantly following it. The barrage of marketing aimed at IT professionals, however, means that we risk recognizing the psychology at play here, and developing strategies based on the wrong kind of catalyst. Certainly no one’s deploying technology for technology’s sake, but deploying out of fear is not much better. IT managers have often thrived on challenge. They just have to make sure it’s the right kind of challenge.

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