4 questions to ask when researching emerging tech

Should you be on the bleeding edge, a fast follower or on watching brief? What I learned from managing complex projects over the past two decades.
  • Chris Pope (CIO New Zealand)
  • 15 January, 2018 07:00

“Chris, I want to understand where our baggage product and operations should be in three to five years, and roadmap on how to get there.”

Thus began my adventure of interacting with staff and customers to understand pain points and opportunities; and with airport companies and vendors to understand industry trends and emerging technologies.

It was a fantastic time of exploring fascinating technology, gaining customer insights, and dreaming of future possibilities.

During this time, I also learned some valuable lessons about how to “separate the wheat from the chaff” when researching emerging technology and industry trends.

The ability to respond quickly to customer demand and market conditions, and for a company to control its own destiny should never be given to others.

Chris Pope


What position do we want to be in the pack?

I have yet to be part of an organisation that has unlimited budget and resources for innovation projects. It is simply not possible to pursue every customer segment, every product idea, every new technology across the given industry. Therefore, one of the key questions for senior management is “Where do we want to be in the pack?”

Where do we want our product or service to sit amongst our peers? Do we want to be:

  • Bleeding edge’ – Achieving a “world first” or “best in class” with a new product or technology? Are we willing to take that cost/risk to achieve first mover advantage? How long will that advantage last and at what cost/benefit?

  • Or is it better to be a fast follower? Let someone else spend the time and money to pave the way with the technology (and the regulators), but be able to quickly jump in and still be among the early adopters.  

  • Or in some instances a watching brief is a better approach to see how the technology matures, industry adoption, and regulation plays out before making a decision. I have seen this in instances were several vendors were completing to establish their protocol as the de facto industry standard. This can avoid the costly mistake of hitching your wagon to the wrong horse.


Is this news story really innovation, or is this just cheap marketing?

Where do we find out what is going on in the wider world of our chosen industry? Usually it starts with asking Auntie Google, researching through industry publications, or attending conferences and events.

One thing that I noticed is that many news articles were provided to the outlets as press releases, and as one dug deeper, the announcements are often about a “trial” or “investigation” of a trendy tech. There is a big difference between “looking into” the potential of emerging technology, and making that technology work and add value in the real world. I have seen many such new stories heralded across multiple industry websites, but then quietly disappear like last year’s one hit wonder.

There is also a difference between rolling out a technology, and that technology radically improving operations or customer experience. I recall several examples of reading past the headline about competitors rolling out iPads to their staff, only to see what they were used for was hardly “a game changer”. So other than sounding exciting and making the company look like they are doing cool stuff, one wonders why they went to print in the first place.


Does this really fit us and our customers?

Walmart has 2.1 million employees and 11,695 stores 28 countries. The Warehouse Group has 12,000 staff and 225 stores in New Zealand. There is value in learning what our “larger cousins in the industry” are up to regarding innovating products and practices. However, they operate at a very different scale and market than kiwi companies; with very different budgets, operating environments, and value drivers. (Notice that I say “different” not necessarily “better”.

Often,, a smaller size can be an advantage as there is less bureaucracy, more agility, and the “Kiwi Can Do” willingness to “give things a go”.  When researching industry trends and innovation, front of mind should be a clear understanding of your organisation’s unique strengths, the market in which you are operating, and specific customer needs.

Ask yourself, “What elements of this [Innovation] can apply to us, and what does not? Would this innovation require more infrastructure than the benefit can justify at our scale?” By clearly identifying what fits your organisation, and being confident of what does not, you will be able to hone in on those innovations that will quickly create the greatest impact to your customers and business (and avoid chasing rabbit trails of those that do not).  


How does this help our competitive advantage (especially if it is an outsource / ___ as a service)?

There is an ever-increasing ability to carve out processes, systems, services to third party providers. However, the question is sometimes not “can we?” but “should we?” Many companies learned this the hard way when they offshored their call centres only to find out that in doing so they sacrificed their direct relationship with their customers.

I have also seen companies outsource their core processes and lose their competitive advantage because they were no longer able to customise their commercially critical system to create new products in response to a change in the market. They were locked in to the same offering as their competitors who used the same third party system.

The ability to respond quickly to customer demand and market conditions, and for a company to control its own destiny should never be given to others.

In the never-ending news cycle and technology advancing on so many fronts, it is easy to get lost in the deafening clamour of “the latest new thing”. However, by having a clear vision and understanding of your organisation, you will be able to ask the right questions that will lead to the right innovations for your business and your customers.

Chris Pope is a consultant specialising in business transformation and delivering large organisational change programmes. He has spent the last 20 years leading complex projects and programmes, running a PMO, and improving practices in industries such as airline, local government, education, internet and healthcare in the United States and New Zealand. He can be reached at or on LinkedIn and Twitter @chrispopenz.

Learn from your peers: Check out our State of the CIO report on the challenges and concerns of CIOs today. Sign up for CIO newsletters for regular updates on CIO news, career tips, views and events. Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter:@cio_nz Join us on Facebook.