What ‘New’ Technologies Are Right for Your Digital Business?

0914BarrettArtNew — as it pertains to technology — is relative and fleeting. Regardless of where an organization finds itself on the digital business landscape, there is no shortage of emerging technologies available to help your company keep up with the expectations of your competitors, customers, employees and partners. But “new” and “emerging” can quickly become “wasteful” and “redundant” if these tools are misused or ignored within the organization.

For technology vendors, the pressure to develop and fine-tune the next generation of business applications and tools leads to a predictable mix of winners, losers and non-starters every quarter and year in the marketplace. And while staying on top of the latest technology platforms, applications and devices is integral to remaining competitive in every industry, it’s important to understand that there is no real beginning, middle or end to the digital business development cycle.

Among all the clutter and hype, what matters most to companies of all sizes is identifying where they find themselves in this never-ending cycle and committing to the “new” technologies that not only address the most relevant business needs, but make the most sense for each company at its current time and place.

What’s really new and what’s (probably) normal

For some companies, this process — these early stages of evolution — is fairly straightforward. Embracing cloud-based services to store and access a sea of information is a great first step and one that many companies of all sizes have already taken. Empowering employees with mobile devices and applications to interact with customers, vendors and colleagues is another example of not-so-new technology being used in new ways to improve efficiencies and meet the expectations of customers who have come to expect immediacy after years of using all the various consumer apps they rely on daily.

But at the next level of “new” — we’re talking here about technologies ranging from mostly mature applications such as 3-D printing and big data analytics to sci-fi fantasy fodder like smart robots and artificial intelligence — it becomes a matter of weighing an organization’s short- and long-term needs against both the cost of the new technology and the disruption these new tools can bring as they’re rolled out to the rank and file.

Cloud-based apps and mobile devices are hardly new to Fortune 500 companies based in the U.S. and Europe, but they’re surely a revelation to the thousands of new small businesses popping up each month in places like India, Brazil and China. And some of the new features and functions enhancing cloud and mobile technologies could be revelatory to business units within those Fortune 500 companies. It’s all about perspective.

For two decades, information technology research and advisory firm Gartner has taken its best stab at bringing a sense of perspective to new technologies and trends with its annual “Hype Cycle” report. It’s something of a scorecard and wish list for enterprise organizations that want to know where they stand in the adoption curve and, maybe just as important, acquaint themselves with where all these new technologies will be taking them and their customers in the next five to 10 years.

This hype report (http://www.gartner.com/technology/research/hype-cycles/) attempts to ascertain the relative maturity of more than 2,000 technologies primarily to help companies in all industries identify and deploy the right technologies to keep pace with their competition.

“As enterprises embark on the journey to becoming digital businesses, they will leverage technologies that today are considered to be emerging,” Hung LeHong, vice president and Gartner fellow, said in the report. “Understanding where your enterprise is on this journey and where you need to go will not only determine the amount of change expected for your enterprise, but also map out which combination of technologies support your progression.”

Blending new apps, technology to fit your needs

Gartner identifies six progressive business era models or stages for enterprises, beginning with analog (Stage 1) and the web (Stage 2) all the way through digital business (Stage 5) and autonomous (Stage 6). The majority of companies find themselves somewhere between Stages 3 and 4 — e-business and digital marketing — making the strategic business and technology decisions that will eventually culminate in a fully functioning digital business.

It’s in this sweet spot of digital marketing where so many new technologies — and combinations of technologies — are finding traction with enterprise clients. Enterprises in this phase of their digital business evolution are particularly interested in new and more sophisticated ways to engage and serve customers who are, themselves, more inclined to participate in marketing efforts via social media on their mobile devices. As Gartner puts it, companies in this stage need the latest applications to help them tap into so-called “buyer influence” to grow their business.

This notion of getting the latest and most relevant information into the hands of the people who can best leverage both the data and social media feeds to drive sales is at the heart of the latest beta launch from FirstRain, a San Mateo, Calif.-based provider of personal business analytics applications.

The company’s new mobile calendar integration feature helps prep sales representatives ahead of meetings using sophisticated algorithms that not only cull Internet news sites and social media sites for the latest news about the client company but also personalize them to each person and role within the organization.

With the calendar feature integrated and personalized to individual employees, a company’s sales staff can immediately access key talking points, company-specific news and industry scuttlebutt just ahead of a scheduled meeting. Pushing out these meeting briefs makes it easier to recommend actions based on the customer’s business goals. It also guides actions based on the challenges the customer’s business is facing and the seller’s own competitive landscape.

“It’s really about providing predictive actions for salespeople and their accounts,” said FirstRain CEO Penny Herscher. “This is what’s happening with your customers and these are the things you should know and do (to better engage with them).”

Beta testers include Fortune 1000 clients including the likes of IBM and General Electric as well as other leading health care, technology and industrials clients.

“Our customers told us that they needed their salespeople to be able to have higher-level conversations with their customers,” Herscher said. “It’s tied directly to the sales workflow calendar so that when they walk into that meeting, it will tell (reps) what they need to know and help guide their conversations.”

The complexity and value of emerging technologies for a true digital business will come into better focus over the next three or four years as the Internet of Things (IoT) transitions from theory to reality. Connecting more and more devices — in the home and the office — ensures more blurring of the physical and virtual worlds and creates more opportunities for leading-edge vendors to differentiate themselves from competitors.

Wearable technology as well as 3-D bioprinting systems and machine-to-machine communication services are just a few of the more promising emerging technologies that enterprise companies are looking to for the next generation of new applications and services.

Austin, Texas-based Upland Software, a leading provider of cloud-based enterprise work management applications, recognizes the importance of providing an end-to-end enterprise content management solution that lets companies spend less time and money worrying about IT implementations and expend more resources on creating better customer experiences.

Its FileBound document and workflow automation software was recently named a Stratus Award finalist by the Business Intelligence Group in the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) category.

“Our focus over the last few years has been on ease of use,” said Sean Nathaniel, general manager of FileBound and senior vice president of technology for Upland Software. “That’s what you’ll hear from our customers. It’s a cloud-delivered solution that’s modeled after something you’ve seen and used in your consumer life. That’s been our real focus.”

FileBound’s rich document and workflow functions are designed for easy mobile access and include advanced analytic dashboards delivered from the cloud. It’s a formula that has proven quite popular for enterprises looking to “digitize” for marketing, customer relationship and supply chain management applications without taking on the overhead of managing and hosting these mission-critical applications in-house.

“It’s easily configurable and a typical FileBound implementation is completed in weeks, not months or years,” Nathaniel said. “We hand most of the implementations over to our customer and usually not an IT person. It’s a functional business leader.”

Taking it to the next level

The final stage of the Gartner’s hype cycle is something it calls autonomous (Stage 6), and it’s just about as ominous as it sounds. Or is it?

“This stage is defined by an enterprise’s ability to leverage technologies that provide humanlike or human-replacing capabilities,” the report notes, adding that the use of cognitive systems to write texts or answer customer questions are just the tip of the iceberg.

Virtual personal assistants, brain-computer interfaces, quantum computing and so-called smart robots are probably a bit too far afield for most companies at this stage in their digital business development, but they’re worth paying attention to as the hype gives way to reality in the years ahead.

“Many early adopters have embraced quite advanced technologies, such as autonomous vehicles or smart advisors, while they continue to improve nexus-related areas, such as mobile apps,” Gartner’s LeHong added. “So it’s important to look at the bigger picture.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Workflow.