From the Cutting Edge to Solid Ground

Almost every Tuesday morning I visit one of my local coffee places called Colectivo1. There are over half a dozen stores that lay near or along the route to someplace I have to be. I’m there on plenty of non-Tuesdays as well, but on Tuesdays they give double points for the loyalty card program so it’s become a habit.

This last Tuesday I was in one of my local stores and while waiting for my Iced Americano with extra ice2 I was asking the barista about the La Marzocco machine. This is a newer store and the machine is a “Strada EE” model. One of the things that appealed to me about the machine is that it still follows a classic design. It looks more like a hot rod than a coffee machine.

But when the barista started describing how the newer machine worked, it really got me thinking.

In “older” machines, when a barista pushed a button, it operated a switch/relay that performed a function. In these newer machines, however, pressing a button sends a signal to a ‘computer’3 inside the machine which then sends a signal to the part that needs to operate. So if something goes wrong, there are now more parts that need to be checked. More potential points of failure. There are also questions as to how well this machine could hold up over time. Components that once required a fair amount of force to operate now only required a touch, but baristas that had been around for a while still gave them a good whack out of habit.

One of my last classes in college (and also one of my favorites) was a required class on ethics in technology. There were four teachers who taught the class across different disciplines and while they all taught from the same book, each one had a different spin on the topic based on their field. I have always disliked history classes, so when I found myself enjoying a history class taught by one of the teachers who taught the class, Professor Morello, I knew I needed to take the humanities section with him.

A recurring theme in the class was “proven technology” which as the term implies is technology that has stood the test of time. But Professor Morello said it was more than that. Proven technology was something that could be plugged into existing infrastructure and could be maintained by those who used it. Our semester-long project was to research a developing country our team had been assigned, determine what was holding them back, and select a system that could be implemented to help them following the “proven technology” principles.

I remember the first time I heard someone refer to something as “cutting edge technology” and thinking it was great. A few years later the new paradigm4 was “bleeding edge.” The proponents of the products in this category were so focused on how shiny it was, they didn’t care about the thousands of dollars beyond the product cost it would take to implement in terms of training and new infrastructure. A few years later I heard the term “hemorrhaging edge technology” and walked out of the meeting.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in the pioneering spirit that forged this country. The willingness to put yourself out there and take calculated risks is at the very heart of entrepreneurship.

The word “innovation” gets thrown around a lot these days. Every company claims to be innovative, but what does that really mean? While your dictionary may differ it refers to creating something new, whether it’s a new product, a new method of doing something, or a new way of thinking.

Google Glass was not the first wearable heads-up display, but it is the first5 one to become a connected accessory rather than a standalone computer. The Tesla is not the first electric car, but it is the first6 to not require an entire infrastructure to replace the gas industry for daily use. The iPad was not the first tablet computer nor the first multi-touch screen device, but it was the first to become a household term and be used by grandchildren and grandparents alike.

So the next time you need to pick a solution among many (or a new espresso machine), please consider some additional questions:

  • Can this be plugged into my existing system or will it require additional changes? If so, at what cost?
  • Is this actually solving a problem that the existing system can’t or is this just newer?
  • Is this something everyone can use out of the box? It not, how much training will it require?
  • Will you get complete buy-in from everyone? Are people going to need to be dragged into it and how will that affect adoption?

Just remember that your organization has a mission to fulfill. If you keep that goal in mind, your decisions get a lot easier.

  1. But to this day I still call them by the original name, “Alterra” and always will.
  2. Or as I call it, “espresso on the rocks.”
  3. The barista called it a computer, but more likely it’s a microcontroller or PLC. Not that you care.
  4. If you use the term “paradigm” without irony, this blog may not be for you.
  5. (that I know of)
  6. (again, that I know of)

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