Look Before You Leapfrog

Frogs in Tree

If you could go back, let’s say 10 or 15 years, and skip the first generation of content and marketing technology infrastructure and go right to today’s software, would your strategy would be in a better, more sustainable place? Don’t answer yet. There’s a term for this: “leapfrog technology.”

The classic example of leapfrog technology is in places such as China, India, and especially Africa, where entire populations have skipped over telecommunications and other infrastructure technologies. In other words, these places skipped the whole landline, wired-telephone industrialization and simply started with mobile technology.

At first, this sounds like a great thing for the group that is enabled to leapfrog. The promise is that they don’t have to go through the mass industrialization of building a legacy infrastructure; they can quickly and nimbly move straight to locally focused, small-scale high-tech-enabled infrastructures.

As it turns out, things don’t always turn out great. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

I was reminded of leapfrog technology when it came up this week in a workshop I was holding for an association and their members. The businesses that this association represents are behind in any of the digital platforms that are relatively commonplace these days. Let me put it this way. If you think your business is dancing to grunge-rock technology, these guys are still dancing to disco.

During a break, I talked with an older, more technically savvy CEO of one of the companies there. As we were reminiscing about using Lotus Notes and BroadVision, and even building Hypercard stacks (kids, look it up), I suggested that they might actually be so far behind that it might be an advantage. I told him that instead of making all the enterprise-content-and-marketing-technology mistakes that most of us made in the early 2000s – and were now trying to unwind – this company might benefit from skipping all that and getting directly into the newer technologies.

He surprised me when he said that they had tried that – and the strategy had broken under their feet:

“Much of the new technology builds on the older architectures. Much of it is built to improve on old software capabilities or to integrate with an infrastructure you should already have in place, or it assumes that you have the data to make it work.”

While there were exceptions, he said, much of the newer technology has evolved from something you’re presumably already doing. If you weren’t already doing that thing in the first place, jumping to the new technology doesn’t help.

We then started talking about leapfrog technology, and he told me that, as it turns out, the World Bank has discovered a similar trend about Africa and other countries that have had some of the leapfrog technology trends. They discovered that while it’s wonderful to jump to having a fiber-optic backbone, iPads, and flat-screen TVs in schools, you can’t make that jump without having the electrical grid, water, wired broadband, and other infrastructure to back it up. The World Bank also discovered that the larger infrastructures of the past had introduced technology standards. The newer technologies assume that the standards are already in place or that marketplaces are established.

“To put it simply, we’ve discovered that if you’re going to be an early adopter of a leapfrog technology, you’ve got to be willing to go back and be a late adopter of some things you missed out on.”

Do you ever have days when you hate the content and technology infrastructure that you’ve inherited? If so, remember that the old tech can prepare you for the new.

Is your organization considering skipping over some old-tech solution and going straight to the coolest, shiniest software tool? If so, remember to look before you leapfrog. Some things can’t be leapt over.

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