I’ve been reading with interest the whole “influence 2.0” debate, as characterised by Jonny Bentwood and Duncan Brown. For “interest” read “vested interest” of course – as an analyst, I have the dubious tag of forming part of the “influencer community” – which at first glance (to me anyway) doesn’t smell too good – for “influencer” one could read “schmoozer”, “evangelist” or indeed the (slightly gangster-like) “persuader” – like I would be going and seeing some hapless organisation and convincing them that they should adopt a certain technology “if they know what’s good for them…” When influencers of any description are not doing their job as well as they could, they are at best acting like advertising hoardings, and at worst, pimps. Frankly, I’d like to be neither.
Which brings me to a parallel debate – that of “independence”. The concept of an independent IT analyst firm is a tenuous one at best. Most often, the term is used to describe smaller, “boutique” analyst companies, to differentiate them from the big guns (Gartner, Forrester and IDC). But surely these companies are independent as well – or aren’t we all in a bit of a pickle? More fundamentally, given that we are actively working within the realms of the IT industry, can we really be claim to be independent of all technological influences? Of course not. By nature, all IT industry analysts share a common assumption – that information technology can add “value” (a nebulous concept) to organisations and individuals. This assumption is by no means proven – we remain, in historical terms, still on the banks of the primeval technological swamp from which we emerge – but we operate on the basis that there is more goodness to be had, the further we can get up the slope. Or perhaps we are still in the swamp, looking for the bank. But I digress.
To base one’s opinions on such an “onward and upward” assumption is very different from saying that technology offers some magical salve, to solve all ills. That elephantine businesses will be able to pirouette, and consumers will surf on electronic waves… this is of course, pure and unrepentant schlock peddled by those who want to sell their products or consultancy services. The massive difficulty for all involved in in IT is caused by a lack of foresight – it is obvious now (for example) how much of a global game-changer the internet has become, or the social effects of mobile phones in both western and developing countries; what’s not so obvious is what are the next “big things”. The IT industry can be seen as a multidimensional betting shop on steroids – Californian venture capital companies and Wall Street, startups and gorilla incumbents, businesses of all sizes and in all sectors – and indeed, industry analysts – are placing their chips on whatever technologies they believe will give them the biggest return. Virtualisation, SOA, agility, social networking, compliance, green – these are all squares on a roulette table – roll up, roll up!
The IT industry is rife with agendas, and nobody working in technology today can claim any kind of independence from the core assumption above, that somehow, technology can make things better. This is as true for individuals as for companies – careers can be based on the depth of learning about specific technologies or delivery techniques (from my own experience I found it easier to get a job as a UNIX expert than as an “IT manager and all round good egg”). However, there is a world of difference between “technology can make things better” and “technology will make things better”. The can-will distinction becomes nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with how it is selected, deployed and operated.
And so, to the third i-word in the title of this post – “impact”. Impact is a pretty hard thing to define, but a very easy thing to appreciate, particularly in IT. Most organisations are littered with the detritus of technological failure – applications that were never used or were superseded, servers and storage that were over- or under-sized, network and security devices that failed to be implemented usefully. In a conversation (I’ve mentioned this before) with a Chief Information Security Officer, he was berating security vendors who didn’t hang around for long enough after achieving a sale, to actually ensure the product was configured and operated correctly. Why should they – sales people are measured on their quarterly “number” of sales achieved, and not on whether their customers appreciated the solution once implemented. The agenda item of, “Don’t quit until the product delivers the originally stated benefits,” is often sadly lacking in the T’s and C’s.
Industry analysts, too, can be taken to task when it comes to the follow-through. Historically, analyst companies were set up to help organisations with procurement: to buy products, compare functionality, define a shortlist of suppliers and negotiate contracts. All well, good and useful but while analysts have move upwards into IT strategy, the heritage of the analyst industry also tails off post-deployment. James Governor has talked about Redmonk as being “make-side” rather than “sell-side” or “buy-side” – which is a great perspective in itself; it also illustrates the procurement-oriented focus of most other IT analyst firms.
Trouble is, procurement is not where the real action is, in the companies implementing technology. The procurement stage is just one in a series of stages, each of which involves multiple stakeholders (not just the CIO!). The benefits ascribed to a given product area may be correct in principle, but they will be highly dependent on the business and architectural context, and on a whole set of non-technological criteria, assumptions and activities – as a grouping, we can call such things “best practice.” Get the best practice right, and there is a far better chance of the technology achieving a positive impact for the organisation. Get it wrong, and the impact may be negative or – and this is just as bad in my books – no impact at all.
So – while it is important to be influential (no point in saying something if nobody is listening), it is equally necessary to have a positive impact on the whole of the IT delivery and operational process, not just the time spent at the shops. Analysts can’t escape the fact that much of the IT industry is driven by agendas – and terms such as “market sizing” are squarely aimed at vendor and their stockholder agendas rather than those of end-users. Meanwhile however, the big advantage of a focus on best practice is that, in the (often-strained) dialogue between organisations and their IT suppliers, “best practice” is one agenda that both sides can fundamentally agree on – the vendor really does want to see its technology being successfully used even once the salesperson has received that stonking bonus, and the business stakeholder and operator will both confirm they are happier if the technology is actually achieving what it set out to do. Promoting best practice might not be as sexy as evangelising the latest and greatest technologies (and we love gadgetry as much as the next guy) but it is far more important than any transient attention paid on whatever’s currently “hot”.
When IT industry analysts flutter round the 60-watt bulb of procurement like tropical moths, they will all be clamouring for a share of the light. When the sun comes up the next morning however, it is the people in the ongoing decision making roles that need the most help – and who, also quite frankly, are often a darned sight more interesting to talk to than those who claim to have the ear of the CIO. I’m not going to claim to be technology-independent, but I can wholeheartedly and categorically state my desire to have maximum influence on ensuring the positive impact of IT through adoption of best practice. That may be outside the remit of influence watchers today, but so be it – I can cope if they can.