New Technology Adoption Insights

I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, a book that sets out to explain “why history unfolded differently on different continents” – about as “big picture” as you can get. One of his chapters is specifically about the rise of new technologies and is useful background reading for anyone involved in e-sourcing software (or enterprise software in general).

The common view [of new technologies is] expressed in the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention”. That is, inventions supposedly arise when a society has an unfulfilled need …. In fact many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity or by a love of tinkering, in the absence of any initial demand for the product they had in mind. Once a device had been invented, the inventor then had to find an application for it. Only after it had been in use a considerable time did consumers feel that they “needed” it. Still other devices, invented to serve one purpose, eventually found most of their use for other, unanticipated purposes. It may come as a surprise to learn that many of these inventions in search of a use include most of the technological breakthroughs of modern times, ranging from the airplane and automobile, through the internal combustion engine and electric light bulb, to the phonograph and transistor. Thus, invention is often the mother of necessity, raher than vice versa.

A couple of examples:

  • Thomas Edison pushed for his phonograph to have serious uses such as recording books for blind people to hear. He gave up on it having a commercial application. But others then started using his phonograph to play music, and this became the main use of the phonograph – a use to which Edison apparently objected for a good 20 years or so.
  • Nikolaus Otto built his first gas engine in 1866 at a time when there were more than enough horses and railroads to transport all the goods that needed transporting. It took until 1885 before Gottfried Daimler put one in a bicycle and, voila, a motorbike.

In the e-sourcing or e-procurement space substitute “inventor” with “Ariba” and “invention” with “e-sourcing system” and you have a picture in which: The e-sourcing software out there today is either massively ahead of its time (like Otto’s gas engine) or may not even be used as intended (like Edison’s phonograph). Either way, the one thing you can say with any confidence is that the real importance of new technology often is not what the inventor thinks it is. For those of you implementing e-sourcing software this means: spend more time talking to your target audience and less time talking to your vendor/implementation consultant.

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2 thoughts on “New Technology Adoption Insights

  1. wain

    I read this book a while ago. Not sure if I’d agree with everything that the author argues in favour of, but he does have some parts that really make you go “I never knew that”

  2. Pingback: Buxton’s Hierarchy of Technology Needs « Where Next

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