The Lessons Antique Computers Can Teach About CRM

A few weeks ago, I was treated to a sneak preview of the Computer History Museum’s upcoming exhibit “Revolution: the First 2000 years of Computing.” Specifically, I was there to see a model of the SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Equipment) computing facility, but as a technology nerd, I reveled in seeing pieces of ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer), JOHNNIAC (John v. Neumann Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer) and a host of other early computers.

As I toured the still-under-construction exhibit, something curator Alex Bochannek said struck a chord. While some people love looking at the hardware — these collections of tubes, dials, knobs and wires have their charms to certain of us — the general public isn’t so inclined. For them, he said, it is important to connect these machines to their applications — their reasons to exist.

What Goes Around

ENIAC was created to compute artillery trajectories. SAGE was created to coordinate defense against Soviet bombers. The Colossus Machine was built to crack the German Enigma codes.

Over time, of course, these systems were adapted to do other things. SAGE was conceived in 1958. By the time it went on line, the Soviets had launched Sputnik and added missiles to their arsenal, rendering its original mission obsolete — but it adapted to new threats. The same for ENIAC; it was used for calculations to develop the hydrogen bomb. The same for JOHNNIAC, which stayed in operation from 1953 to 1966 working on a host of computationally intensive projects.

If you’ve been around technology for any time, you know that some patterns repeat themselves. That was what went through my head at the Computer History Museum. Looking at these antique computers can teach you about choosing and using business software, especially CRM.

Here’s what I mean: Before you buy CRM, you need to understand its application in your business. How will it be used? What specific problem is it being brought in to solve? Before you start asking, “What technology should we use?” you have to understand its role and reason for being.

Why Deployments Fail

That sounds elementary, but ask a CRM consultant about this. One of the primary reasons CRM implementations fail is that not enough thought has gone into the initial phases of defining requirements.

If your understanding of your sales, marketing and support issues are vague, you can only make vague requests to address those issues, usually resulting in a poor decision around the technology. However, if you fully understand the problems, investment in technology will not only be justified, but also far more likely to pay off in results.

Let’s go back the mid-1940s. If someone simply said, “We should figure out how artillery shells travel through the air — let’s use technology to do that,” technologists could take a stab at it. However, without the details of the question — like wind, projectile shape and other elements of the problem that could affect the accuracy of the operation — the results were likely to be poor and the investment would probably be viewed as a waste. Is that much different than what happens in a lot of poorly defined CRM deployments today?

Look Inward First

The second aspect of antique computing that echoes through CRM today is the flexibility of those early machines. Just as with customer relationships, conditions change. Back then, people were motivated to make their multimillion dollar investments keep working. Thus, SAGE was adapted to cope with multiple threats, and JOHNNIAC had its memory improved and expanded to handle new problems.

The same goes for CRM these days. Most CRM applications are so fully featured that new problems don’t require new software in many cases — they merely require the use of features that have gone unused in the past. These “forgotten features” are often stumbled upon by users after they’ve had success with their initial uses of the software, much as new uses were discovered or invented for early computers.

When new issues or goals are identified and designed, the first step should not be to look externally for new CRM software — it should be a look internally at what you’ve already purchased.

The echoes of technology past — and the problems that technology was created to solve — still reverberate today for anyone who cares to listen to them. We’ve come a long way, but the basics of defining your problems and maximizing your investment are still in place.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he’s not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he’s wearing his airplane geek hat; he’s written two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

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