The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn
By Pip Coburn
Portfolio, 2006, US$24.95

Most business books have one big idea that the author draws out for 200 pages. Usually the idea can be explained in a review, and the book itself, coloured with vague examples, is best to skim.

Pip Coburn’s The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn is different. Yes, he has a big idea – that you can predict which technologies will succeed or fail by applying a simple formula – and this idea is covered in the first ten pages. But what sets this book apart from so many others is that the rest of it is worth reading. Coburn fills his book with detailed case studies, gleaned from his years as managing director of the technology group at UBS Investment Research, that illustrate his formula. And thanks to the detail, the cases actually teach you something.

The core of Coburn’s formula is that a new technology should be widely adopted only if it meets two criteria. First, it has to address a problem, and second, that problem has to be more painful than the perceived pain of adopting the new technology.

“We need to balance our wonderment at technology’s role in creating nirvana with a skepticism about business models,” writes Coburn, now head of his own investment company, Coburn Ventures. The picture-phone, for example, which AT&T pushed from the 1960s to the 1980s, failed because the need to see the person you’re talking to isn’t a big enough problem to justify buying and learning how to use an expensive new phone system.

That’s a lesson that should hit home for CIOs. Applying Coburn’s insight, CIOs should force IT projects through a gauntlet of questions, asking not only if a particular technology will solve a problem but also whether that problem is one users are desperate enough to have them do something about.