Beware IT's Unintended Consequences - InformationWeek
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04:29 PM
Imre Kabai
Imre Kabai

Beware IT's Unintended Consequences

The positive, negative and just surprising technical and other outcomes that confound conventional wisdom.

"Each system is perfectly designed to achieve exactly the results that it gets." -- Donald Berwick

The Internet seemed slow, so I ran a speed test. The sub-megabit download speed confirmed my suspicion, so I reluctantly set up a ladder, climbed to the roof and checked the small dish pointed at a remote Wi-Fi tower over the hills. The antenna was completely covered in bird droppings. Yes, that's right -- I discovered that I had a very reliable digital bird poop detector.

Many information technologies have unintended consequences. Some call them features, alternate uses or hidden costs/benefits. Sometimes the technologies are best defined by these consequences, rather than by the original intentions. These consequences can be positive, negative or just surprising. They can be direct or indirect, latent or obvious, short or long term. Here are examples:


-- Microwave ovens: discovered when Percy Spencer's radar experiment melted the chocolate in his pocket.

-- Text messages: developed by cell phone carriers to let customers know about problems. People started texting one another, and it caught on so quickly that most carriers didn't have systems in place to charge their customers for the service.

-- Splunk: CEO Godfrey Sullivan estimates that 30% to 40% of the revenue the company generates from its machine-data analytics software comes from uses it didn't envision.

-- Twitter: catalyzed the Arab Spring.

-- GPS: Geocaching is a favorite hobby of more than half a million people.

-- Internet: The explosive growth surprised everybody. As Bill Clinton famously said: "When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the World Wide Web. … Now even my cat has its own page."


-- Email: What was an indispensable communications medium often turns into the corporate content management solution.

-- Help desk ticketing system: becomes a company's data repository for identity and access management audit trail.

-- Public Google search: becomes the search engine for enterprise content.

-- GPS: has led to the pollution of previously pristine Polynesian atolls where navigation used to be difficult.

-- Consumer devices: become a major headache from a corporate IT administration, security and compliance perspective.

-- Internet: cyberthreats are escalating into all aspects of individual and business life, from identity theft to corporate espionage.

-- ERP systems: end up hugely over-customized and expensive to maintain or change.


-- Flashlight App: This simple application for illuminating has become one of the all-time top iPhone downloads.

-- Information Technology Productivity Paradox: contradiction between the remarkable advances in computer power and the relatively slow growth of productivity at the level of the whole economy.

-- Continuous innovation: Moore's Law is still "alive and well."

-- Internet: grumpy cat!

The problems we face usually have many different solutions and therefore many unexpected consequences. Here's a diagram illustrating the "many solutions" idea. Can you think of any unexpected consequences if you hired the Hulk as your bodyguard? How about 007? Wouldn't you worry about your daughter?


Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School has a brilliant approach to uncovering latent unintended consequences. A fast food chain hired his team to figure out what action would increase the sale of milkshakes. You would be surprised to find out why people "hire a milkshake."

So which IT best practices can we use to avoid at least some of the inevitable unintended consequences? Here are some thoughts:

-- Follow Christensen's advice: Crawl into your customers' skin and ask them: Why do you do things this way?

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-- Don't create problems for your IT stakeholders. You can be sure they will find ways around them, creating even bigger problems. For example, do you have colleagues who use external proxies to tunnel through your Web content filters so they can access blocked sites?

-- Non-actions can have unintended consequences too. How much of your corporate data is out in the public cloud because of a lack of centrally supported cloud storage?

-- Remember that when a simple system -- for example, an IT policy (a.k.a. institutional overreaction) -- is used to control a complex system, you may invoke the Law of Unintended Consequences.

-- It's crucial to understand and characterize the context in which information technologies are to be used. Involve your stakeholders and develop a good understanding of their requirements first.

-- Complex non-linear systems will always surprise you, and no amount of testing and modeling can eliminate the "butterfly effect."

-- Short-term and long-term values are often contradictory. It's a bad situation when your IT leadership's lifecycle is shorter than your technology's lifecycle.

As an unintended consequence from the future, the Terminator would say: "Hasta la vista, baby!"

Until next time.

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User Rank: Apprentice
10/17/2013 | 8:53:03 AM
re: Beware IT's Unintended Consequences
This article raises a lot of good points about how difficult it is to predict everything that will unfold as a result of your actions. One of the things that caught my attention was how crucial it is to understand and characterise the content of your stakeholders. A tool I've been using for that recently is the WHY Code ( It has enabled us to map out the goals of our stakeholders clearly, ensuring we are all on the same page.
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