Adoption: The Key to Cloud Success

September 10, 2012 Appirio

A conversation with Michael Krigsman (@mkrigsman)

We use technology to get things done better, more efficiently, or effectively. The “we” in that statement is often undervalued because, ultimately, it’s users that determine whether or not technology improves business outcomes.

The current wave of enterprise cloud innovation, led by Salesforce.com, Workday and Google, is creating a user experience at work that is inspired by the best of the consumer web. However, even though cloud solutions are far easier to use than traditional applications, enterprises must not forget the fundamentals. Any new solution means change for users; if you want them to embrace that change, an adoption plan and strategy are essential. In fact, cloud solutions need a different adoption approach than traditional change management.

We recently spoke with Michael Krigsman about his perspective on cloud adoption. Michael is well known for chronicling what happens when things go horribly wrong with IT projects in his IT Project Failures blog on ZDNet; he also writes about IT innovation in the Wall Street Journal’s CIO blog and consults on strategy and innovation. This unique vantage point gives him a deep appreciation for the importance of adoption.

For more on how you can drive adoption systematically, be sure to check out Michael’s new white paper, “Achieving Business Goals in the Cloud: The Importance of User Adoption.”

Q: You’ve covered IT failures for years and in the paper point to user adoption as a common issue. Why do you think companies don’t put more effort into this area?

Gaining high levels of adoption culminates from the combination of well-designed software, useful business process changes, and a robust internal support system. History demonstrates that you cannot simply mandate adoption, but must work with users to engage their involvement. To encourage users to use new software, talk in language they understand and will find meaningful.

The human element is always more confusing than raw technology, so many organizations do not invest sufficiently in this area. That’s a shame because user adoption is key to unlocking the value of technology investments. In other words, ROI really does depend on user adoption. In truth, encouraging adoption should not be this difficult, but it does require care and attention.

Q: Do the advancements in cloud solutions make failure less likely or user adoption easier?

The best cloud projects tend to follow an iterative, highly interactive flow that engages business stakeholders from the start. By reducing the expectations gap between business users and technologists, you will address many communication issues at the source. Traditional waterfall projects can suffer when business users and IT do not achieve clarity about project goals, purpose, and desired results. To use a buzzword, we call this “lack of alignment” between business and IT; in plain English, if key stakeholders don’t communicate, the results will not meet anyone’s needs completely. Poor adoption is one negative consequence of these situations.

Iterative development has another advantage, which is releasing business process change over a longer period than would otherwise be the case. Adoption becomes easier when you give users more time to absorb business process changes. To the extent that cloud projects drive ongoing, yet less dramatic change, user adoption is likely to be higher. Gradual process changes generally create less pain and suffering for users than bursts of transformation activity that start unexpectedly.         

Q: In the paper  you talk about user adoption as part of the overall development lifecycle. Can you expand on that concept a little further?

User adoption is not a magical thing that somehow just happens. Instead, it results from many choices and decisions taken from the project start and continuing through the entire development life cycle. Here is a simple formula to encourage user adoption:

  1. Choose a development project that users find meaningful and worthwhile
  2. Find ways for users and developers to collaborate, with respect, as equals
  3. Share frequent milestones between developers and users to gain feedback, maintain course corrections, and manage expectations on both sides
  4. Rinse and repeat

In this ideal development process, there is literally no gap between users and developers, so both sides naturally have buy-in and feel they are contributing to a single whole. What’s not to like with this approach?

Q: You talked to a few Appirio customers for the white paper.  Did anything they do strike you as something others could learn from?

Talking with the customers was a highlight for me. The key lessons were: engage the business in development decisions and allow business processes to change based on the new software. On the surface, these lessons sound simple and perhaps even obvious. However, many organizations have deeply ingrained IT processes and attitudes that interfere with accomplishing these points.

The common thread among the Appirio customers with whom I spoke is commitment to making change work. These folks had senior level endorsement and displayed ongoing dedication to making positive changes to their organizational culture. Gaining consistently high user adoption involves lifestyle shifts that require ongoing effort, a lesson that the most innovative organizations understand and practice.

Q: When customers are selecting a partner for IT implementations, what are some of the questions they can ask to make sure there will be a large enough focus on user adoption? Is there anything they should run from?

The choice of implementation or development partner is critical. Ask the proposed partner for specific examples of projects that had high adoption. Then, ask what factors contributed to that adoption, but also find out what conditions inhibited adoption from occurring more easily.

User adoption is a human process, so perfection is impossible and high levels of adoption do not happen by chance. Therefore, try to uncover the partner’s understanding of the conditions that cause adoption to occur. I would also ask them to describe a project where adoption was a challenge and see if they can answer why.

We all know that references are important but anyone can dig up good references. That’s why I strongly suggest diving deep into the specific circumstances of user adoption to see how much experience and knowledge the partner actually possesses.

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