Why doesn't technology ever seem to live up to expectations? Businesses have been asking that question for the last 15 years. Although there may always be a number of technical reasons why a system doesn't work as promised, there are a few more fundamental reasons that companies should consider to better manage their systems and everyone's expectations.

Before delving into that, though, it's helpful to consider the toaster. Sure, the technology in this simple kitchen appliance is nowhere near as complicated as project management software, but it offers an important lesson nonetheless. The toaster meets your expectations as soon as you put it in place because you know and understand what it's supposed to do. It toasts bread, and that's all the toaster-marketing people suggest it will do. Not only that, the technology is simple enough for most end-users to master. In other words, it doesn't require a lot of training or explanation. Finally, most of the toaster technology has been out a while so new developments are infrequent and don't have to be pushed into the market before they're ready.

This analogy, although simple, can help explain the gap between the expectations and reality of the more complicated technology at the heart of today's software systems. First, it's common to set expectations too high. Second, products don't always deliver what they promised. The question, though, is why?

Setting expectations too high. Software and hardware developers are often forced to release products before they've been fully tested. This puts the pressure of testing on the end-users — unbeknownst to them — and can make it seem like the programs or devices are more complicated or less stable than they should be.

Some of the responsibility for setting expectations too high rests with the technology marketplace. Whether it's the marketing departments and the brochures they produce or the salespeople themselves, they all present the best possible scenarios relative to the use of their systems: perfect data, running on flawless applications, operated by patient but intuitive users. If management doesn't filter this input carefully, they could very well buy in to the all-too-optimistic vision.

Management must also accept that people involved in the implementation will have other responsibilities to keep up with. Oftentimes they receive clear direction on what they need to commit to implement a new system. While enthusiasm runs high early on, the day-to-day pressures they endure can begin to erode the initial commitment. Without the necessary people and time for training, few system implementations will live up to even the most modest of expectations.

Another cause of missed expectations is the notion that employees and the company in general will be able to use the new system to continue doing things the way they've always been done. However, expending considerable effort to apply new software to old processes is work in vain. Old processes are often a relic of past systems and requirements, while new systems are usually based on current best-practices or design conventions that have been incorporated based on feedback from many contractor customers. Attempts to hold onto the past always lead to missed expectations on one side or the other. Either management will be dismayed that their investment didn't yield greater beneficial change or members of the old guard who are resistant to conforming to new requirements will find reasons why the new system won't work.

What can be done? Although high expectations are sometimes caused by a vendor's inflated claims, you need to accept some of the responsibility by preparing yourself and your team so your new systems don't leave you disappointed.

Get the right support. Most implementations take place without the most important support position. An executive sponsor is a high-level manager who agrees to take ultimate responsibility for the implementation of the system and provide support to the team as needed. If they need a policy decision made, more resources applied to the process, additional money for training or consulting, or even just a managerial perspective, the executive sponsor can step in and keep the team moving. This can be a member of upper management who, although not necessarily technical, has a vested interest in the outcome of the implementation.

Build a better budget. Proper budgeting is also crucial. When management makes a significant investment in software and hardware, they'll have equally significant expectations for what they're going to get in return. As a result, expectations are set fairly high to justify an investment of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Management needs a realistic assessment of the total system investment and what it stands to gain.

You paid for it, so use it. Many companies are so relieved when they finally go live on a new system that they breathe a sigh of relief when it happens and immediately get back to doing their day-to-day job. But this is when they could really improve processes, efficiency, and access to information. The go-live moment is often a significant improvement for the company but doesn't approach where it can go. Many people run into the same problem with their VCRs: Once they learn to tape a movie and play it back, they're satisfied and fail to take the extra time to learn how to record one show while watching another. That additional value comes with advanced training and consulting, which should be provided six to nine months after going live. At this point, employees have had a chance to get comfortable with the functions they know and understand how the system really works. This is the best time to tackle advanced features and functions and ensure that the system is being used consistently throughout the organization.

Call your friends. If you really want to know whether the system is going to live up to the hype it received during the sales process or in the brochure, call references. But don't stop with the references you get from the vendor. Talk to people you know from network contacts, associations, or other sources who have used the system. Their input isn't likely to affect your decision to make the investment, but it could help to reset expectations appropriately. Maybe the level of commitment to implementation is greater than you originally understood or the system isn't as flexible as you initially thought. Either way, a thorough round of reference calling is an invaluable exercise.

Prepare your team for the worst. Expectations aren't limited to what a new system can provide. They also include the expected amount of work necessary to implement it. For some people, being a part of significant organizational change is invigorating, challenging, and rewarding, but for others it's just one more job they're not getting paid extra for. While planning the roll-out with your implementation team and employees, paint a grim picture that includes lots of hard work, long hours, difficult testing, frustrating bugs, and intolerable meetings. In most cases, this will be a reality, so if you set the expectations low enough for the team, you're preparing them for the likely scenario. If you're wrong and it's much easier, they're not going to complain. But if they don't understand the commitment level up-front and only find out after they're knee-deep in the process that overtime will be necessary, the software is unstable, and they'll have to work with many other people in the organization who are resistant to change, they're going to be marginally committed and very unhappy.

Set a manageable pace. Another part of implementation planning is building the objectives and the schedule. Many companies fail to meet expectations because they've been too ambitious. It's good to look forward and think of all the good that will come from a new system. But at the same time, most construction businesses don't staff for system implementations in a way that allows them to accomplish all they can at once. For this reason, it's a good idea to look at the objectives, prioritize them, and then plan the implementation in a practical and well-paced manner. You shouldn't establish expectations that all applications are going to be fully implemented and used by everyone in the organization on Day One.

Technology upgrades can be fraught with disappointment, but they don't have to be. The next time an investment in a new software platform has you feeling a little buyer's remorse, ask yourself if it's because the program doesn't work or because you didn't properly prepare yourself for how it would work.

Burger is president of Burger Consulting Group in Chicago.




Sidebar: A Gameplan for Success

Expectations are deceptively easy to manage as long as those involved maintain regular and honest communications and follow these steps:

  • Keep the objectives and priorities in sight at all times.
  • Select your new system carefully and objectively with good organizational input.
  • Call several references and ask open-ended questions.
  • Be appropriately ambitious in scope.
  • Commit the resources necessary to work on the selection and implementation.
  • Make sure upper management understands the investment required for the entire project — not just for the software and hardware.
  • Train, train, train.