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Are Technology Strategy Disputes Bogging Down Your Business?

By Robert McGarvey

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Open source vs. Microsoft. Cloud vs. data center. Oracle vs. SAP ... You think ultimate cage fighting is tough? “You have no idea. None. These technology disputes turn really nasty, and personal, so fast,” sighs Dave Hatter, a principal in Libertas Technologies, a Cincinnati computer consulting firm.

Matt Podowitz, executive director of Advisory Services at accounting firm Grant Thornton, said a flashpoint for many technology wars is ignited in today’s market when an equity fund rounds up a number of acquisitions, then seeks to blend them into one cohesive unit. But company A runs Oracle, company B is a SAP shop, C uses SAS, and pretty soon a brawl erupts. Ego is at stake, but so too are jobs and thus things can get very bitter very quickly.

Another, related trigger for technology warfare is mergers and acquisitions, said John Colbert, a vice president with Stamford CG-based BPM Partners, a technology consultancy. “This can be so tough for a CIO to referee.”

Podowitz elaborates that, often, the technology war is a red herring. “During mergers and acquisitions, the argument over whose technology is better becomes a proxy for discussions about which company’s operating model―supported by its respective executive team, processes and technology―is best for the long-term interests of the business.”

Still other wars erupt between operating groups and internal IT departments, said Hatter, who indicates that there are instances where the business unit is content with the technology it is using, but the IT group wants to implement a new, almost certainly slicker technology and the business units digs in its heels and fights the change.

But all this fighting is pointless. “You cannot let the technologists pull you down into the weeds in the code,” said Josh Katinger, founder of IT consulting firm Accession Media in Brookfield, CT. “These are religious wars that the CIO has to end.”

A Lasting Peace

How? Podowitz said a starting point is recognizing that technology purity may matter in computer science classrooms but in business, not so much. What matters is what works, and that idea, said Podowitz, is a stepping stone for silencing many technology skirmishes. “I always bring the discussion back to what is right for this business, right now. This is simplistic but it works.”

Sometimes, too, said Podowitz this will mean embracing what almost certainly is the technologically inferior choice, but it may not matter “if this is what better serves the business at this time.”

“The CIO has to remove his tech hat and look at the issues from the business’s perspective. Don’t get dazzled by the technologies. Keep your eye on what really matters to the business,” said Colbert.

Katinger adds that a shrewd step to take to thwart warfare before the body count rises is to blow a whistle and force all parties to prepare detailed total cost of ownership (TCO) analyses of the competing technologies. Sometimes, said Podowitz, he suggests a variation by having each antagonist prepare a TCO for the other technology (the Cloud proponent has to write up the benefits of a proprietary data center and vice versa). In still other cases, enmities are so bitter, TCO has to be handed off to an independent, third-party, typically an outside IT consultant. Either way, said Katinger, “When the TCO is documented correctly and completely, and compared against the potential ROI of the given technology, the opinions and biases fade away quickly and it becomes a much clearer business decision.”

The question that matters, said Podowitz, “is where does this business want to be in three to five years and which technology will get us there with the least risk, at the best cost.” Technology as such is scarcely part of that discussion; it’s all about the business and its needs .”

He adds: “Yes, there is a place for disagreement, heated discussions, about technologies inside a business. That can be beneficial. But conflict for the sake of conflict is a distraction a business should not tolerate. You need to get everybody focused on the business case. That’s what matters, and that’s the focus that will produce the decisions this business needs.”

As a busy freelance writer for more than 30 years, Rob McGarvey has written over 1500 articles for many of the nation's leading publications―from Reader's Digest to Playboy and from the NY Times to Harvard Business Review. McGarvey covers CEOs, business, high tech, human resources, real estate, and the energy sector. A particular specialty is advertorial sections for many top outlets including the New York Times, Crain's New York, and Fortune Magazine.