How "The Hype Cycle" Explains How We Adopt Technology (Or Not)

Last Updated Dec 28, 2010 11:10 AM EST

If you've ever been part of a technology roll-out that fizzled, you know how expensive and frustrating it can be. You have carefully chosen a vendor, made a big splashy announcement, (maybe) made training available to people and... nothing. The bad news is that can be costly and annoying. What you need to know is that it's perfectly natural.

What you're seeing in action is something called "The Hype Cycle" and knowing what it is will help you counteract it and get more ROI on your technology investment. The term was coined in the mid-1990s by Gartner ( or The Gartner Group as they were then known). Basically, it shows how people react to a new technology.

There are 5 stages to this cycle:

  1. The Technology Trigger: someone invents a cool tool like the iPad, or IT finally quits mucking around with the bid process and announces they've chosen a new web presentation platform.
  2. The Peak of Inflated Expectations: This is based on perfectly good math and overly optimistic expectations. "We have 200 managers, if they all do 2 webmeetings a week we'll make our money back in no time and look at everything we'll save on travel". The problem is that not all your managers will immediately jump on that bandwagon, which leads to...
  3. The Trough of Disillusionment: This sounds like something out of Pilgrim's Progress but it basically is the cold splash of reality in your face when you realize only a fraction of people will immediately adopt a new tool. At this point, you have to work like a dog to get to...
  4. The Slope of Enlightenment: This is how long it takes your people to ramp up to using a tool at some level of effectiveness. If they move fast, it's a quick climb, if they aren't motivated to use the technology, it can be a long, painful, gradual slope to...
  5. The Plateau of Productivity: Which is where whoever is going to use the tool is using it. Sometimes it's almost universal (like email) and sometimes it's far below expectations (SharePoint anyone?).
Where money is recouped or lost forever is in a) how steep the Slope of Enlightenment is and b) how high the Plateau of Productivity is. So how do you get over the initial disappointment and get where you need to go faster?

Most companies make two mistakes when rolling out technology: they have unrealistic expectations of how quickly people will grab onto a technology and they try to roll it out to everyone at the same time. Both will deepen the trough of disappointment and increase the length of time it takes to reach productivity.

Here's how to overcome this perfectly natural obstacle to success:

Start Small-- choose a pilot group of users, demonstrate success and let the rest of your team build on success. You want to choose people for this group who are willing to use technology, are respected by their peers and will immediately show positive results from using the tool. This will increase positive buzz and help others be more willing to try your new gizmo. Think about your Peaks and Troughs... the lower the peak the shallower the trough and the faster the climb to utilization.

Train, Coach and Follow Up With the Users-- If left to their own devices, some people will take initiative to learn how to use a tool, some will play with it and maybe get inspired and most will make a feeble effort and then bail out. That's why that slope can be prolonged and painful to go through. The faster they learn, use and show results on something, the faster you reach the plateau and the higher that plateau will be.

Let Peers Spread the News-- most people make decisions on technology (whether it's a software program or a new car) based more on peer review and word of mouth than advertising or memos from IT. Motivated users make for higher adoption rates.

By having a realistic understanding of how people will adopt new tools at work, you can manage expectations and speed up adoption. Not only will you show financial rewards, but you can quit mucking around with the tools and get back to work.

Read more:

Photo by flickr user DSuar CC 2.0