Saturday, September 6, 2014

How IT Hype Inhibits Technology Innovation

There are many unique characteristics connected to the IT industry, some of them are more associated with pure-play IT vendors but others seem to pervade most all organizations which utilize IT in any significant manner. One of the strangest of these characteristics is the obsession with buzzword Hype. For most people this is symbolized through the development and dissemination of Gartner's famous Hype Cycle diagrams. However, the Hype obsession existed before the Hype Cycle ever did and doesn't explain the phenomenon in a satisfactory manner.

So, what's wrong with Hype? Isn't it just a harmless offshoot of public relations or perhaps just some benign manifestation of mass psychology? Perhaps some of our readers here are old enough to remember the endless silly fads of the 1970's which included Pet Rocks and Mood Rings. Did buying these worthless trinkets in any way negatively impact our later lives - probably not. What these harmless trends did perhaps achieve though was a sort of conditioning that might have pre-disposed the vast majority of us to assign more attention to trends then they might otherwise merit.

Pet Rocks were definitely low tech - but represented a hype-generated trend none-the-less

Now without diving into the implications of psychological theory in regards to conditioning and behavior, it is does seem as though much of what we see or talk about is driven by various Hype cycles. This occurs in entertainment, in business, in food & dining - in nearly every aspect of popular culture and remarkably it also affects science and technology. What represents Buzz in the Scientific community over recent years? Well, how about the Stem Cells, The God Particle and Fractals (or Fibonacci numbers) to name a few.

Getting back to Information Tech - how are we influenced by fads, trends and Buzzword Hype? Well, let's attempt a definition here first...

Buzzword Hype - This represents a unique form of public relations wherein somewhat complex concepts are crammed into a single buzzword (although Buzzwords can technically include several words in them - Master Data Management has three, Big Data has two). While this phenomenon is not limited to IT - it is the most prevalent form of Hype in the technology arena.

So, if an acronym is a mnemonic for a complex term (MDM for Master Data Management), the term itself is a mnemonic for the complex concept that everyone already understands, right? Wait a minute, perhaps we've discovered the first problem; how many people actually understand these terms? Furthermore, how many people are actually concerned with learning these terms?

Let's hone in on one of the biggest Buzzword Hype examples of the last few years - Big Data (we've touched upon this topic before in Technovation Talks). How many people actually have a comprehensive knowledge of what this represents? or even have the same expectations or knowledge about it? Is Big Data just the Hadoop distributed fault tolerant file system, it is the lack of SQL and relational structure, is it the high capacity or throughput or is it some combination of these elements and much, much more. Even more importantly, is Big Data even something that can be neatly defined as one standard solution? All good questions, none of which are typically addressed in the core Hype surrounding the buzzword.

The buzzword hype for Big Data seems to imply more, better, faster, bigger with very little consideration as to how that might happen or what the eventual impacts would be. The term itself becomes its own justification - if everyone is talking about doing it and beginning to do it - why shouldn't we, right? And by the way, what is it again?

Let's step back a moment and try to classify what the core problems associated with the Hype Cycle are:

  • These buzzwords actually drive business decisions, regardless of the level of education or understanding associated with them.
  • There is an undercurrent of peer pressure that tends to 'force' people into making those decisions - decisions they weren't ready to make (because they didn't have time to evaluate the situation properly).
  • The hype tends to drown out most other types of discussions associated either with the technology in question or the real trends of what's happening across most enterprises. And I characterize these as 'real' because they represent common challenges which aren't necessarily product-driven (thus not good candidates for hype).
  • Premature adoption based on hype cycles often has the opposite effect on a particular technology area - it stifles it as too much bad word-of-mouth feedback circulates and what might otherwise be a promising field of practice languishes as a result (E-learning is the best of example of this I can think of).

How does all of this impact or otherwise inhibit Innovation? Well, here are some things to think about:

  • Some Hype Trends are not in fact very innovative, yet if everyone is doing it - then folks trying to introduce truly innovative techniques or products may be drowned out or suppressed. 
  • Most Hype Cycles tend to pose the key buzzword focus area as a "silver bullet" solution - as those of us who have practiced IT for a while can all attest to, there are few if any actual Silver Bullet solutions. Similar the Heisenberg Principle (and we're not referring to Breaking Bad here), introduction of a new element impacts the existing elements in unanticipated ways (well, this isn't an exact analogy to the Heisenberg Principle but it's close enough). The whole of IT might be viewed as "Magic Happens Here" by outsiders but inside we know there is a constant struggle to impose order over chaos - silver bullets are often disruptive. Yes, that's good but not if you don't understand the nature of the disruption before you go whole hog (so to speak).
  • Hype & Buzzwords tend to make people think situations are simpler than they really are, and in some senses actually discourage the necessary analysis that should be occurring when adopting new technology. Innovation cannot be sustained when and where it becomes too expensive to manage.   

We will ever escape the grip of unreasoning Hype in IT? Will our lives be forever ruled by an unrelenting cascade of product focused buzzwords? Who knows - IT is still in its infancy and unlike most other professions we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves on an almost continual basis - so anything is possible.

Copyright 2014, Stephen Lahanas



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