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Why CEOs should hang tech-washing out to dry

by Mark Raskino  |  September 5, 2017  |  Comments Off on Why CEOs should hang tech-washing out to dry

During his address to the American nation on April 30th 1973, President Richard Nixon provided his now famous line “there can be no Whitewash at the White House”. The analogy of using white paint to cover up a mess was not new, but ever since – journalists and copywriters have been in love with it. In the marketing of technology a derivative use has become common. About a decade ago, people started to become concerned that the total electricity consumption of computers might contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. So some technology vendors placed more emphasis on the power efficiency design of equipment. The trend was popularized as “green IT”.washing line

However, as soon as there’s a theme that moves market opinion and buying decisions, others want to climb aboard. Some marketers started to liberally apply vague green words and half claims to their brochures for equipment that had hardly changed. Commentators and analysts quickly coined a term for that rather disingenuous behavior: “greenwashing”.  This derivative of whitewashing made sense – because a color was involved. Building from this the “x-washing” term template became generally useful for labeling situations where marketers were jumping on a trend bandwagon and adding it to their messages without sufficient justification. This has become a familiar repeat behavior in technology marketing. Every time a big new technology trend arrives, we see some companies tempted to just add the words before they have very much product delivery to back them up.

Here’s the problem this sets up for CEOs. Once a few tech market actors start to play the washing game, if it works in influencing inexpert buyers, others follow. Quickly the hyperbole builds up as competitors try to outdo each other. Within the operating and IT departments of companies that buy technology to use in their businesses – professionals feel the need to get the new trend onto their resumes. So they start to have an interest in repeating the vendor marketers’ plausible but unfounded claims. Before you know it, a CEO is faced with a situation where almost everyone around the executive table is convinced by their people that the new thing is a must-do and the technology needed is a must-buy. The remaining skeptics remain silent – deferring to the majority  group-think. Sometimes even CIOs get swept up in the hype tide. So the CEO must be the backstop.

Here are three particular categories of tech washing that CEOs should be wary of at the moment.

  • AI (artificial intelligence)
  • Blockchain
  • IoT (internet of things)

Each of these technologies is very high power and will have deep, valuable effects on all industries….  eventually. In a limited set of specific situations they are already having an impact. Unfortunately the collective efforts of marketers have amounted to a premature over-claiming for these technologies. They are complex technologies with all kinds of weak points and situational application issues yet to be sorted out.

So what should a CEO do at one of those meetings when it seems everyone in the room is agreed and excited about diving into a major public project with a tech provider – who is gushing with enthusiasm about one of these revolutionary techs? Force the tires to be kicked. Here are three simple questions to ask:

  • Explain to me, step by step, how the technology will contribute business value – in a way I can convincingly repeat to our investors.
  • Tell to me why is it not possible to implement this business idea with more mature and proven technologies.
  • Name a company I might know, that has seen material commercial benefit from this kind of breakthrough… so that I can contact the CEO and get his take.

If the idea is good and the new technology application is viable, it should be quite easy to get answers to these questions. They won’t slow down a great project. They might stop a bad one.

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Mark Raskino
VP & Gartner Fellow
15 years at Gartner
30 years IT industry

Mark Raskino is a vice president and Gartner Fellow in the CEO Research group. Mark creates advice and analysis for CEOs on technology related and digital business strategy and change Read Full Bio

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