IT managers mind the communications gap

Peter Judge: IT managers have to put IT across to non-professionals on the board, and get what they want from suppliers. Research shows that they are making progress in both these things - even if Sun Microsystems doesn't think so.

This industry has many faults, but two of the worst are clichés, and market research that, in the popular phrase, "states the bleedin' obvious". So my heart sank when Sun Microsystems announced market research into the problems facing IT managers, and it hit my boots at the headline conclusion: "Boardroom Britain fails to recognise the value of IT".

There are few clichés more hoary, or conclusions more bleedin' obvious, than this one. And what is more, the research does not even back the conclusion up: it was a survey, of 100 IT managers, which asked whether the board appreciated the value of IT. So any data about what the board is thinking is second-hand at best. And even so, a majority (55 percent) of the sample said their board did appreciate it.

Now, given the number of companies that suffered from IT hubris and got their hands severely burnt during the dot-com boom, I'd say that is a pretty amazing vote of confidence. If you remember back then, every company was convinced that IT (read "the Internet") was so strategic it had to invest huge sums in e-commerce sites, never mind the low initial returns. After the pathetic results (so far) of this strategy, and the amount of money bled in online presence, WAP portals and the like, it is a wonder that more boards are not sticking their fingers in their ears and saying "I'm not listening, I'm not listening", when the IT guy comes round with another great idea.

Amazingly, the good people from Sun managed to top their initial cliché with some even more dusty old clunkers. The whole thing set me wondering. What is it about attitudes to IT that makes it so impossible to say anything of real value?

The research, carried out by Vanson Bourne, covered a range of questions about the issues facing IT managers. Apparently, it revealed that businesses are hamstrung by poor IT infrastructure which has been put together piecemeal over many years (again, something bleedin' obvious to most people in the industry).

"Sun plans to do something about this," said the company's UK datacentre server marketing manager, Mark Lewis. And what does Sun plan to do? "We are re-organising around solutions rather than products."

This, if anything, is an even crustier cliché. "We sell solutions not products," sounded lame, even when I first heard it getting on for twenty years ago. It means, roughly speaking, "our stuff actually works, honest." Even the very pinnacle of product-driven marketing, the infamous Innovations catalogue that comes tucked in the Sunday papers, tries to make each item a solution ("aerate the lawn as you mow it, thanks to these spiked lawn-aerator shoes, which can be monogrammed for you -- end non-aerated lawn misery!").

And Lewis followed up with: "We are taking the customer perspective." Meaning Sun's salespeople are going to try and find out what a user needs before they sell it to them. Now this is something which every salesperson in the universe knew already, and every vendor likes to say from time to time. Sun's approach to making it happen is to rotate salespeople through solutions centres where they get hands-on experience -- whether this works or not is a separate issue.

Fortunately, I do not believe for one minute that Sun is changing its business model on the basis of a phone poll of 100 people. Otherwise, I'd be forced to believe that Sun has only just entered the real world after spending decades in a parallel universe.

But maybe there is something else happening. Perhaps Sun is owning up to the industry's failure. When a hundred half-arsed dot-coms were queueing up with bucket loads of VC money to burn, suppliers (and not just Sun) certainly weren't too fussed about whether they were shipping a solution or a product. They took the money.

After that it's no surprise that this survey found users asking for return on investment, and quickly. But because of all the stuff they have installed over the last few years, they also need to do fundamental things to their infrastructure, to sort out the mess that it is in. Unfortunately, the needs are incompatible. They also want fewer operating systems (which must have been galling to Sun and others who are just adding Linux to its portfolio).

This, then is the message that boardrooms need to understand. It isn't simple, and it isn't flattering to either IT or the vendors.

But the research left me wondering two things.

Firstly, do people really want "solutions not products"? Car adverts are aspirational, and focus on the product, not what it does for you. People buy BMW for the name, for the product, not as a rational "solution" to the "problem" of moving from A to B.

And IT is the same. Every salesman who says "we sell solutions not products" immediately follows up with a tech-heavy proposal, bristling with products. The so-called "solutions" now in vogue are Web services, XML, and so forth, pretty much regardless of your problem.

Because, in fact, there is a fundamental problem. In order to explain whether something is a solution, you have to talk about what products and technology are involved in it. As a sales pitch, "You need a system that shares data where it is needed, don't worry about the details, though," is never going to fly.

And the second thing that struck me is that when IT managers face the board, they have exactly the same issues. They have ideas about how to make IT play its part in the development of the company, and they have to sell them to the board. Are they selling products? Or solutions?

Of course, what they sell to the board should be a solution. But it should also be a set of clearly defined (even if technically complex) products and technologies.

If there is a communications gap between IT managers and the board, it is because of the tension between selling something and explaining it. And the fact that a majority feel they are getting through is a testament to the skills of our IT managers.

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