IT Management

IT Sense: Truth in Advertising

About every decade or so, there is a brief flirtation in this country with ideas like “open-door politics,” “government in the sunshine,” and “truth in advertising.” What happens, basically, is that an organization engaged in selling something—whether it be an idea, a political candidate, a product, or an image—discerns a “climate of mistrust” within the buying community. It may not be mistrust of the vendor per se, but of all vendors, or of the system in which they operate.

Whatever the reason, the vendor typically responds by adopting a posture of greater openness to the consumer. They talk about engaging the consumer in the product development, vetting, or testing process. They seek to address trust issues by revealing enough about internal processes or products to convince even the most cynical consumer that products perform as advertised.

Lately, there has been a discernable crisis of confidence around IT. The signs are obvious: Investors who were stung by the collapse of the dot.com bubble are reluctant to throw more money at tech stocks. In the IT world, many consumers hesitate to buy innovative technology from companies that lack lengthy tenure in the industry or demonstrated “staying power,” regardless of how good that vendor’s products actually are. Even brand name vendors have seen a decline in sales as many companies once again question the business value they have (or haven’t) been realizing from their IT investments.

Enter “truth in advertising.” Virtually everyone on the sales side of the IT business complains about the same thing: their customers are skeptical. IT consumers expect the vendor to convince them that products will actually work as shown in the brochure. The “trust thy vendor” and “if you build it, they will come” mantras of the ’90s have become nostalgic curiosities of a bygone era.

This would be a good thing if we, as consumers, were always on top of our game. If we really understood our business processes, then our newfound power over IT vendors would be a boon.

In most cases, however, we haven’t done our homework. So, the current opportunity to change things to the advantage of the consumer is likely to pass us by.

My company has recently been talking with vendors about their forthcoming product introductions. You would be surprised how many times the same theme recurs, “We know that XYZ would be a better technology for accomplishing a specific goal for our customers, but we have to go with the flow to survive the current economy.”

A leading tape technology vendor made the following remark recently with respect to the connectivity provided in his next platform, “Our tests showed that Gigabit Ethernet with Jumbo Frames provided a demonstrably better interconnect for file server backup than did Fibre Channel (for reasons having to do with flexibility to changing object sizes in the data stream).” However, regardless of this fact, the company’s next-generation tape library product (and its product literature) is going to emphasize “native Fibre Channel support” because that’s what customers think they want.

There’s the rub. Consumers, for reasons of emotion, internal politics, or practical constraints, bring less-than-perfect decision making to the marketplace. One could argue that the IT marketeers have succeeded in pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes with slick ad campaigns, propaganda, and disinformation, but the ultimate responsibility for bad technology and faulty IT solutions ultimately resides with the consumer. Consider these points.

In the case of Fortune 500 firms, the issue of “brand name” and “industry vetting” should be viewed as largely irrelevant to technology product selection. Our clients in this group expect an ROI—typically misused to mean “payback” or the amount of time required for the product to pay for itself in cost-savings—within 17 months or less, and these companies are already looking for its replacement even as the product is being deployed. So, the exposure, or risk, to the company of using an innovative, new technology from an off-brand manufacturer or newbie is a moot point. Unfortunately, this is often a tough sell for the IT maven to make to technically non-savvy financial managers who control the purse strings.

Among our small- to medium-business (SMB) clients there is often greater scrutiny applied to technology selection. Things such as interoperability, standards, and acquisition cost are often more important in solution definition. Most of these clients are better informed about their business processes and technology than their big brothers on the New York Stock Exchange. However, these firms lack the means to actually test specific products to ensure that they deliver on promises.

For “truth in advertising” to actually deliver value to the IT consumer, the consumer must first understand what his business processes require and second, be objective, agnostic, and informed about the technology choices available. Third, consumers need to report, publicly and loudly, which products worked as advertised and which did not. Only then can we identify which technologies will actually solve a business problem or support a business process. Z