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Leading Edge or Bleeding Edge?

With computerization’s rapid and consistent advances in both hardware and software, spreading from computers to laptops, cell phones, TV, even automobiles, we all face a similar conundrum: When should I upgrade? It’s not a matter of replacing something broken or out of style, but rather when is it worth my time and money to get a replacement with more function, better performance or a prettier interface? It’s a cost-benefit analysis, which can result in frustration due to defects, usability issues or vendor support, or that may provide new options that may open a new world.

But when upgrading computerized business systems an organization depends on, the stakes get considerably higher; disruptions or ineffectiveness created by newer technology can be disastrous. When the project is really leading edge as in an early product installation program, the risks are even higher. Here, I focus on these early product installation programs; I’ve had the opportunity to participate in many of them during my career.

Early product installation programs have names like Early Support Program, First Customer Shipment Program and Beta Test. Early installation programs are formal agreements between client and vendor, whereby a vendor provides a client with a new version or release of a product (hardware or software) before the product is generally available in exchange for product installation and testing, potentially moving to production before general availability.

Client and vendor work closely together to resolve problems so fixes get integrated into the product before general release, via special escalation and elevated support, and the client provides extensive reporting on problems, usability, function and other features. The client can suggest product enhancements or changes, which may be added to the current product, or documented as a future release requirement. Enhanced vendor support —especially problem resolution—usually extends a few months after production. A given company may participate in a program once, sporadically or for most versions/releases.


Leading-edge projects can offer massive competitive advantages. Performance improvements often results in improved customer service, previously impossible applications and handling transaction volumes previously unattainable. New function can open the door to new products, improved usability and staff reductions due to automation of manual processes. Often software and hardware enhancements go together, opening the door to changes—such as teleconferencing or email—that improves an organization’s effectiveness. And often leading-edge products offer cost savings and efficiency.

Here are some considerations on why participation in an early product introduction program is right for your organization:

Competitive Advantage

  • New function can come in many different forms: usability, connectivity, accommodation of new technology (e.g. relational database), new capabilities (email/texting on a phone, imagine that!), etc.
  • Automation of business processes saves money. In the early days, computers were simple accounting number crunchers that ran one program at a time from punched cards, using only main or core memory. Then came multitasking software, spinning disks that stored punched cards magnetically and virtual storage that ballooned memory. Computing solutions expanded into other business processes. The stream of applications still grows exponentially.
  • Elimination or reduction of performance constraints enables increased business volumes. There are four main types of constraints: processor speed, real storage, virtual storage and logical bottlenecks (e.g. serial processes, locks on records). Depending on what constraints limit a process, features that reduce those constraints will improve throughput, usually at reduced incremental cost.

Enhanced Product Support

  • Problems reported by clients in early installation programs are often given higher priority, and staffed with more experienced, skilled support representatives.
  • Vendors get more involved in problem identification and documentation, providing heightened support and reducing resolution time.
  • Circumventions to problems are more likely to be provided, and faster.

Increased Vendor Influence and Input

  • An early installation client will have the ear of a vendor regarding product requirements, providing more influence on future enhancements. This process is often formalized, with detailed vendor responses.
  • A vendor gains a greater appreciation of early installation clients’ requirements, and is more likely to give serious consideration to their requirements even after the program has been completed.

Enhanced Vendor Training and Skills Transfer

  • The education provided with an early installation program is substantial. Education is a prerequisite for a successful early installation project, and translates to a significant increase in skills for a client’s staff.
  • There’s a lot of one-on-one interaction during an early installation that’s unique to a client’s systems and specific needs that would never occur in formal training. This specialized training is of great value.

Jim Schesvold can be reached at

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