2 approaches to technology: ‘bolt-on’ vs. ‘whole-cloth’

Weigh strategic benefits and cost to find the best fit

There are a lot of ways to consider incorporating technology into your business. Of course, you could just adopt technology willy-nilly and see what happens. But chances are that route is going to lead to some pain further down the road.

Let’s look at two completely different ways of approaching tech solutions: the "bolt-on" approach and the "whole-cloth" approach.

Bolt-on approach to tech

This way of getting technology into your business practice is probably the most common. It’s often the default, in fact.

With the bolt-on approach you simply wait for a problem in your business to occur. Then you see if there’s a particular piece of technology that can solve that problem.

Then, as the name suggests, you simply bolt the tech solution on top of whatever other technologies and processes you have in place.

This approach has a number of great aspects to it. All the technology you use is solving some problem in the business so there isn’t much waste.

It’s also fast. As soon as you identify the problem and find some bit of technology to solve it, you can get up and running quickly.

There are also drawbacks to the bolt-on approach. Sometimes the problem goes away but the collection of technology to deal with it is never pruned.

Also, many bolt-on solutions work best for very specific work flows. If your work flow doesn’t match up, then the solution may disturb your business as you adopt the new work flow.

If your team isn’t very flexible in this way, then it could get ugly in a hurry.

The biggest danger with the bolt-on approach is that the shiny technology solutions can sometimes take over.

This results in the classic "solution-looking-for-a-problem" syndrome. When a technology enthusiast adopts the bolt-on approach, it is very difficult to prevent this from happening.

The best way to get a nice, lean, bolt-on technology adoption process rolling is to make a short checklist of things to evaluate the new technology being bolted on to your organization. Include things like:

  • Problem being solved.
  • Current work flow vs. technology work flow.
  • Additional "hidden" technology requirements (hardware and software).
  • Training requirements for the whole team to use the technology well.
  • Who will be the in-house expert or champion of this technology?
  • Oh yeah: cost.

If you have a technology enthusiast involved in finding solutions, pair him or her up with a good old-fashioned curmudgeon to help balance things out.

Ideally, the enthusiast and the curmudgeon should have respect for one another and not be in a hierarchical relationship (in other words, the curmudgeon isn’t the CEO while the enthusiast is the "new kid" just hired on last week).

Also, if you’ve done the quick documentation of your bolted-on stuff, it is easier to do an audit every few months to see if anything can be unbolted.

The whole-cloth approach to tech

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the whole-cloth approach. In this style of technology adoption, a larger view of an entire spectrum of technologies is integrated together consciously to solve problems in a business system.

This could be pretty grand in scope, involving the creation of a complete business intelligence solution, for example. Or it could be modest: an effective social media campaign planning and execution system.

The main point is that, unlike the bolt-on approach, several different business processes are woven together in a planned manner.

This approach has some nice advantages. Since they often involve custom technology, the solutions can match your existing business processes. This makes for a smoother adoption of the technology because your team makes minimal changes to their current processes.

Also, since the solutions are custom-tweaked to your business, this approach can often yield competitive strategic advantages.

If your business process is clearly better than others in your market and you amplify it with technology — even if your competitors had similar technology — they wouldn’t be able to leverage it with their existing people.

Instead, they would have to switch their processes to match yours, and that leads to a lot of internal discomfort.

This is a danger to the whole-cloth approach to technology, though. It can take too long. In particular, it can take too long if you have a perfectionist at the helm and lack the resources to execute on the perfectionist’s perfect vision.

In addition, things like "scope creep" can bog down a whole-cloth technology initiative. What started as a simple auto-reminder system balloons into a complete customer relationship management solution. The result is a project that gets delayed or half-built.

When approaching a whole-cloth solution, consider the following:

  • What existing business processes are being turned into software code by the technology solution?
  • What future additions/growth/capability might be planned for (but not built right now)?
  • Hardware and software considerations.
  • Internal training and documentation requirements.

If you can keep perfectionism balanced with the scope of the initiative, then you can make these whole-cloth projects work out well to amplify your business’s inherent strategic advantages. If not, it gets ugly slowly.

A quick note about costs

I purposely didn’t mention costs in the advantages and disadvantages of bolt-on vs. whole-cloth. While it might be easy to assume that the whole-cloth approach is significantly more expensive, this isn’t always the case.

I have seen many real estate agents who spend an enormous amount of resources maintaining a wide variety of bolt-on technologies at great expense, and even discovering what they all are can be a challenge.

The costs for either approach can be great or small depending on the discipline of the person doing the bolt-on approach or the ability to maintain proper scope for the person doing the whole-cloth approach.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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