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How to Tell the Difference Between IT Fads and Trends

Before committing your organization to an emerging technology or methodology, you should first determine its staying power.

IT fads. The list is seemingly endless. Business supercomputers, RFID, the UK's NHS civilian IT project, and floating data centers, to name just a few famous flops.

The difference between a fad and a trend is staying power, states Scott Buchholz, emerging technology research managing director, and government and public services chief technology officer, with Deloitte Consulting. “Fads tend to come and go very quickly, whereas trends tend to last for years or decades, evolving and changing as they go.”

Fads often fall into the “too good to be true” category, Buchholz notes. “They're the silver bullets, the trivial solutions to wicked problems, and the empty promises of full buzzword compliance.”

Falling for a fad could ultimately hinder an organization's innovation team. “Depending on your budget and scope, you may only have a chance to take a couple of ‘big swings’ each year,” says Mike Storiale, vice president, innovation development, at consumer financial services firm Synchrony. Time wasted on a fad can delay, or perhaps even halt, work on a truly useful initiative.

Key Trends Indicators

Trends generally present a clear business value. Unlike fads, trends are typically logical evolutions rooted in previously successful innovations. “For example, recommendation engines evolved from rules-based models to statistics to machine learning,” Buchholz explains. “Microservices evolved out of a long history of web services, service-oriented architecture, remote object calls, and more.”

A genuine trend can also unlock new possibilities. “Autonomous driving could make it possible for people to live, work, and vacation farther away,” Storiale says. Self-driving vehicles could also permanently shift shopping trends and disrupt the ways vehicles are acquired, insured, and serviced.

Due Diligence

IT industry consultants rely on networks of hundreds or even thousands of experts to guide their technology research and reach decisions. “For those without that support infrastructure, getting advice from a trusted, independent expert can be very helpful,” Buchholz says.

Follow the money, advises Joel Martin, executive research leader at business consulting and research firm HFS Research. “If there's a way to monetize the offering, investors will invest in the due diligence to make it happen,” he says. While strong financial backing doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, it likely will attract followers looking to mimic or copy the innovation, strengthening its potential for long-term success.

Business outcomes are generally fed from three directions: by increased revenue, decreased costs, or new revenue streams, says Prashant Kelker, partner and Americas lead, digital sourcing and solutions, with global technology research and advisory firm ISG. “The more we can combine business outcomes with new developments, the more we will be able to justify the ‘why’, and separate trends from fads.”

All Aboard -- Or Not

The best time to commit to a promising trend is when it becomes a discussion topic among a large number of potential adopters, Kelker says. “When an important new trend begins to enable the possibility of joining dots across the journey for a seamless experience, it's time to commit to it.”

Storiale suggests that potential adopters should ask themselves if the trend is likely to survive a downturn in the Gartner Hype Cycle. “This phase is when many people will start to wonder if the excitement was a fad and not the trend they thought it was,” he explains.

It’s important to identify, analyze, and evaluate promising trends early to fully understand their value and potential. On the other hand, it's best to delay full deployment until a solid business case has been firmly established. “For example, AI-driven marketing solutions can sound compelling, but unless they're demonstrating sales uplift, implementing them in production may be more trouble than they’re worth,” Buchholz says.

Early experimentation is always important -- at least to move from a theoretical understanding of a topic into what it takes to implement it, Kelker says. “Organizations should be careful not to confuse ‘nail it’ approaches with ‘scale it’ approaches.”

Timing is critical. Martin advises buying into a trend as close as possible to the moment when the innovation is adopted by multiple providers and enters the business mainstream. “Look for a window when the third viable market leader enters the market and go hard if the solution/product is relevant to your market/customers,” he recommends.

A trend's long-term survival requires enablement, crossing boundaries, and hooks that ensure market lock-in. “Exploring what the future may look like will help you identify if [the trend] could make it beyond this [early] stage and have serious staying power,” Storiale says.

People often talk about failure never being an option. Yet if failure is inevitable it should at least be for the right reasons. “Setting out to identify if the thing you're chasing is a trend or a fad can help establish a foundation for success,” Storiale says.

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