Martin McLachlan says brokers should reduce their expectations of technology solutions.

In a recent article, Professor Ian Angell of the LSE said that the Home Secretary , Jacqui Smith, subscribed to the “pixie dust” school of technology. The core belief of this sect, whose members tend to be either IT sales staff or those who have never been involved in any form of technology implementation or both, is that technology can quickly and effortlessly solve otherwise intractable problems.

I am not cynical about the benefits technology can bring – it’s just that after decades in IT I think the techie bits are, relatively, simple. The hard bits are controlling expectations, understanding what the user wants in the first place, and ensuring the system is used.

Expectations spin out of control at an early stage in IT projects. Huge cost savings and massive revenue growth are dangled as carrots to make users salivate sufficiently to loosen the padlock on the capital account.

Just to add a little spice, it is assumed the project will run to a timetable, which in turn assumes that everyone involved has the physical constitution of Superman (no sick leave) and the intellect of Einstein (no mistakes and no rework).

The sales effort spares no hyperbole. The Powerpoint breathlessly (I know this metaphor is a bit strained, but bear with me) paints pictures of a golden tomorrow. Then reality intrudes.

Some common issues arise. The new software on which Nirvana was to be delivered is not fully developed, has unforeseen bugs (these are sometimes known as undocumented features), cannot be changed as required because the original designer has left the company or, possibly, it simply does not work. Perhaps, as it is new technology, only three people in the Universe understand it and they want a king’s ransom for their troubles.

If any of the aforementioned occur, and it would be simple to extend the list, expectations begin to be frustrated – timescales extend, costs rise, features are dropped and potential users become disillusioned.

“Insurance is a good example of a simple business made complex by the determined efforts of many generations of its practitioners.

The second hard bit is understanding user needs. You have to feel sorry for IT folk here. Most business users completely underestimate how much they know. Insurance is a good example of a simple business made complex by the determined efforts of many generations of its practitioners.

Trying to understand the intricacies really requires a good grounding in the field – hence why some IT suppliers now employ former brokers and retrain them in systems work. Sometimes suppliers are successful and sometimes they fail.

Unfortunately, most of us can only identify if something is successful when we have the chance to use it under pressure. By then, it is probably too costly to fix, since most of the pennies have been spent.

Let’s assume we have a system that works and does what the user wants. Will the phrase “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” apply? Well no, and this is the third hard bit.

The product now has to be sold to users who tend to be, quite correctly, very conservative. In general, the main competition to any IT product is not another competitor’s product, but doing nothing new – after all, the latter has worked for a long time so why can’t it do so in the future? Yet products do succeed, but not as quickly as pundits and suppliers predict.

In light of the aforementioned tale of woe, what are the lessons for brokers? First, make sure any IT you adopt is proven: pioneers are, they say, the ones with the arrows in their backs. Second, buy as an organisation from top to bottom – the gin and tonic sale to the boss is part of the sales task, but the users must also like what is being sold. If they don’t, it will probably not be used effectively. Third, remember the 80/20 rule – if it works for most of your business it probably makes sense, perfection is for the birds.