Gartner: Embrace user rebellion or risk the wrath of it

Summary:Customers and rogue users that are worming their way around the control freaks in your glass house in order to have things their way with their IT are not about to go away anytime soon. About the only thing that Gartner analysts Ray Valdes and Neil McDonald didn't say in talking about how it's a bad idea to resist such rebellions is "get over it.

Customers and rogue users that are worming their way around the control freaks in your glass house in order to have things their way with their IT are not about to go away anytime soon. About the only thing that Gartner analysts Ray Valdes and Neil McDonald didn't say in talking about how it's a bad idea to resist such rebellions is "get over it." When users and customers find their own way of doing things, perhaps sometimes against your better wishes, they're sending you a clear message that you're not responding to their needs and, more than likely, your systems are not as agile as they need to be.

Throughout their presentation, I couldn't help but think of ScrapePI -- the name that mashup developers like's Adrian Holovaty have affectionately assigned to the technique of creating APIs (through Web page scraping) to data where no API has officially been furnished by the operator of the Web site (ScrapePI is routinely a favorite subject of discussion of those who attend Mashup Camp). Once someone wraps your data in their own API, pretty much anything can happen from there (most of it stuff you may not want to know about). But, just suppose you provide your own API (creating a path of least resistance for developers), well, know you've created a community and are more likely to (a) know who is doing what with your data and (b) be perceived as being flexible rather than rigid (the latter of which just encourages rogue operations).  According to MacDonaled, you must "Redefine rules of engagement so that IT is viewed as an enabler of change rather than as the IT empire."

The title of Valdes and MaDonald's discussion was "Rebels vs. Empires: The Cycle of Disruption
and Discontinuity in Technology and Business" and a good majority of the talk drew upon historical case studies where disruptive forces have been far harder to deal with than have traditional competition to whoever the status quo is.  For example, Valdes views Java and .NET to be traditional competitors and the differences between the two are more subtle than the vendors of each would like to think. Said Valdes "In the parking lot at the end of the day, at a distance, there isn't much difference between Java and the .NET platform."  Another example of this sort of old school competition were two circuses -- the Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Ringling Bros. Circus -- that eventually merged and became one.  Coke vs. Pepsi.  Toyota vs. Honda. Burger King vs. MacDonalds. Fedex vs. UPS. They're all examples of things that look the same from a distance in a dimly lit lot.  Even Microsoft and Google, said Valdes:

At end of the day, even though their business models are different, [Microsoft and Google] have the same rules of engagement.  They still have employees to pay and shareholders to appease. In some ways Microsoft and Google are similar. 

"When do rebel movements arise?" the analysts asked. "When an empire achieves total dominion." Referring to the merged Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the analysts cited Cirque du Soleil as a non-traditional force that first relied on low-paid street performers before attaining the status it has today. Slowly though, even the playing field in the circus business has become traditionalized. Recently Ringling Bros. (sic) started trading in their wild animal acts for the higher-tech fare that Cirque du Soleil is known for. 

In the tech industry, unconventional competition could easily arise should organizations chose not to embrace certain communities of users. In particular, Valdes cited the days of Netscape vs. Microsoft when executives for the latter were infamously quoted as saying that they wanted to "suck the oxygen out of the system." Said Valdes, "When you try to cut off the air supply like that, what happens is anaerobic bacteria arise they're the kind that don't need that sustenance. Unconventional competitors will arise that don't need oxygen." Netscape was a more traditional company. It had stock holders. It had employees. It had constituencies that it had to serve. It needed oxygen. The same cannot be said of the open source solutions like Firefox that are now challenging Microsoft on a variety of fronts.  It raises a good question. With Internet Explorer usage starting to erode, might Microsoft be in different place had it worked harder to embrace the communities of people who went anaerobic?

Avoiding anaerobes became the underlying theme of the presentation. Referring to the consumerization movement that's an underlying theme of the entire event, the analysts said:

IT is in hands of consumers. Take gaming consoles, PDAs, IM, and browsers; in all of these cases, they've mostly been adopted by consumers first. The consumer impact will be a trigger to creating resentment and backlash if you mishandle it.

The analysts went on to talk about way to embrace end-user movements. For example, they talked about, instead of forcing users to use specific technologies at a certain expense to the company, certain organizations are allowing users to bring their own preferred technologies into the IT mix and are subsidizing part of the cost. 

By the end of the presentation, the main advice/commentary for companies that have difficulty embracing rebels covered 6 points:

  • What is it costing your company for not having agile systems?
  • Lighten up (on your technology, on your process
  • Honor the user
  • Open up (to open source and user-contributed content)
  • Mashup or shut up (embrace the mashup culture)
  • Refactor the organization as you refactor your software (this referred to the flattening of stodgy non-productive and overly top-heavy hierarchies).
And, if you are a rebel, the analysts had pretty much one reminder: "A moment of convenience could lead to a moment of regret. You're actions have consequences."

Topics: Microsoft


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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