Rethinking the Technology & IT Analyst Industry

Over my last twelve years working as a senior executive in the technology industry I have had an opportunity to engage with a broad section of technology and IT analysts and researchers – both from established firms (eg. Gartner, Forrester etc.), smaller more focused firms (eg. Altimeter Group) and of course the more recent phenomena of the blogger/independent analyst.

For the most part the people I have encountered are smart, have a good deal of  domain knowledge, are good communicators and care about providing timely and accurate analysis and advice.  But with all other things, there is a bell curve, there are some people that have amazing insight and I always learn from then, there are a whole bunch in the middle that are solid and sometimes can add good value and as always there are some that really should look to do something else with their time.

This post is not about the individual analysts it is about the analyst industry.

So the issue is not the people – the issue is the structure of the industry and the inherent incentives that lead to sub-optimal analysis and advice that is tainted by accusations of “pay to play”.  This is a topic that is not new, and has been discussed before.  The general complaint that analysts play both side of the game, they write about vendors and the industry but then also get paid by the vendors thus tainting their advice is an old one.

The reason I thought this topic was important to revisit is because (1) there have been some structural changes to the technology industry that make the current IT analyst model seem archaic and (2) I have some specific thoughts on how we might try and reform the industry.

Why Change is Even More Relevant Today: There are several important changes that have taken place in the technology industry that will require some rethinking of the traditional IT Analyst Industry.

Lack of Defined Categories:  Traditionally we have had very specific functional domain experts – the CRM expert, the BI expert etc.  I don’t think customers buy in categories any more – they buy solutions that transcend software category boundaries – thus making research papers focused on these categories less relevant.

Integration of Consumer & Enterprise: This is one of the bigger changes in the industry – the “consumerization of the enterprise”.  Now more than ever there is no classic enterprise software play.  As such, analysis and advice based on deep enterprise background, without the latest thinking on consumer sw trends (and just focusing on social media does not cut it) misses integrating a fundamental change in the industry.

The Rise of the Consumer as the Buyer: Traditional analyst work has focused on providing insight to the CIO and associated IT teams in enterprises.  Analysts spend a great deal of time with vendors and CIO – but the decision makers are increasingly the end users.  We still see very little end user based research at traditional analyst firms

Not Enough Focus on Start Ups: Research coverage is still based on large and medium sized vendors.  This is partly due to the influence of these vendors, partly because they can afford to pay consulting fees and therefore get more attention.  The reality is that startups is where the innovation happening and there is no effective model today to provide customers the timely effective insight on the innovation taking place with smaller companies.

What Can We Do – Some Suggestions: IT/Technology Analysts can play an important part in acting as sources of unbiased and informative research and analysis.  Here are some suggestions for the industry to consider.

Focus on Industry Segments not SW Categories: The buyer of software is seeking the solution to a problem. These challenges arise out of specific dynamics of an industry (eg. Retail, Banking etc.).  Analyst firms should build up much stronger expertise in industry knowledge to make the advice more relevant and specific.

Rate Analysts and Firms: The financial analyst industry has it partly right (notwithstanding the failure of analysis in the financial meltdown).  Equity analysts provide very specific recommendations and then based on their insight and accuracy they get a rating.  Top analysts and firms get paid more and have more influence – this seems the right approach.  I agree that it is marginally easier to rate the accuracy of financial analysts – but I am sure the industry can come up with a standard rating system that provides customers and consumers some insight on this topic.  There are plenty of examples and methods to choose from  – Yahoo even has a “Analyst Performance Center” for this purpose.  This would be a great business idea for an independent firm to provide analyst ratings for IT/Industry analysts – I bet customer and vendors would buy this research.

Transparency of Relationships: This will help address the “pay to play” topic.  I think specific analysts and firms should clearly make transparent their economic relationship to a vendor and this information must be attached to every report and visible on the firms website.  I think the preference would be to provide the dollar amount but that is probably going to far. A more radical approach to this problem – use “Buy Side” and “Sell Side” analysts.  You either work with customers only to advise them on deals etc. or you work with vendors only to write on their innovations.

Stop Using IT Lingo:  I have written about this in a previous blog posting “Why Words are Killing the Adoption of Innovation” Somehow we think that the more complicated the words the more insightful and important the analysis.  This could not be further from the truth.  The industry would be much better placed if they focused on the clarity and simplicity of the analysis.  Vendors already make it impossible to understand what they are really selling – sometimes analysts add to this confusion.

Foster Independent and Small Analyst Firms: The consolidation in the analyst industry has resulted in bigger firms with more market power – this is fine, but it should be balanced with smaller and independent firms that innovate on how they are trying to bring new research and analysis to the market.  Constellation Research is a new firm that is seeking to innovate in this area and I look forward to following their progress.

These are just a few suggestions for us to consider.  I am sure not everyone will agree with me and I am sure my analyst friends will have a relevant point of view based on their experience – I would welcome the feedback.

Hope this fosters some interesting discussion and “analysis” !

Zia.

A Growth Strategy for Yahoo – the (Social) Enterprise ?

Yahoo is a company that has always intrigued me.  Over the past few years we have all read about the issues facing Yahoo – lack of a clear strategy, management challenges, the on again off again romance with Microsoft and a stock price that has gone from about $35 about 5 years ago to $16 today. And even todays stock price has built into it a significant value from China’s Alibaba.

Clearly Yahoo needs a growth strategy. So here is the “Right Question”  Should Yahoo develop and execute on a strategy to provide a comprehensive set of services for the enterprise ?  I think they should seriously explore this as an option.

Lets review what some of the current trends are in enterprise software – let me throw out some buzz words – cloud computing & SAAS, social media in the enterprise, social CRM, crowdsourcing, structured and unstructured data, Enterprise 2.0 and so on. In essence, many of the innovations in the enterprise are being driven or inspired by innovations in the consumer web.  This is the core of the Enterprise 2.0 approach.

On one hand you have the pure consumer focused companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. On the other hand a new generation of enterprise focused companies are extending these new approaches and seeking to integrate them into the enterprise, SocialCast, Yammer, Ning, Jive etc.

Now lets take a look at Yahoo.  Despite its challenges the company is still a consumer technology leader.  Some ideas – if a consumer online store – Amazon – can create the leading cloud platform for the enterprise  Amazon EC2 then why cannot Yahoo leverage its data center and web management expertise to provide an enterprise cloud infrastructure and apps.  Yahoo Finance is a strong product and has interesting potential to be connected with other enterprise apps to provide integrated structured and unstructured information.  Yahoo knows how to build communities (maybe not as good as Facebook) but still good enough.  Yahoo can be a strong player in providing social media capabilities for the enterprise.  You can even consider integrating Yahoo Jobs into enterprise HR systems to provide an end 2 end business process for talent management.

I know that Yahoo has considered some of these options in the past and considered partnerships with enterprise software firms – but these plans never took off and the company focused on its consumer roots. Maybe some of these ideas are currently being discussed in the company – I hope they are.

So I don’t know if a more enterprise focused strategy (to complement the consumer work) is a viable option for Yahoo at this stage but I think it is certainly something that the Yahoo management should explore carefully – certainly if there is any truth to a private equity buyout of Yahoo this should be part of the strategy.

As usual, I appreciate your thoughts and comments – especially from current and past Yahoo employees and experts.

Thanks,

Zia.

What “Togetherville.com” can teach grownups !

I am pretty excited about the launch of Togetherville.com – the new online community for kids under 10.    As any of you who are parents of young kids know the technologies of today have created a whole new set of challenges for those of us trying to raise children in a safe and healthy environment.  While technology opens up a range of amazing opportunities for children it does pose daunting challenges around keeping kids safe online and exposing them to age appropriate content.

I am a strong believer in the benefits of social media, but have found that the privacy challenges of sites like Facebook  provide an uncomfortable level of security for children. With Togetherville you can create in essence a private community of children and adults that know each other and can therefore interact with peace of mind. Congratulations to the founders Mandeep Singh Dhillon and Raj Singh Tut for a great idea. Ofcourse yet again my friend Reid Hoffman has managed to support another potential killer app !

As I looked at Togetherville I was led to explore what this new venture could teach us grownups as we explore the future of technology.  My thoughts led to two insights that build on the approach followed by Togetherville.

First, I think online privacy violations are reaching unsuitable levels.  My challenge is not with situations where you knowingly give up information if asked.  My challenge is that more often than not privacy settings are opaque and difficult to understand and across sites there is no standard way to set a desired level of privacy. 

I think a partial answer to this lies in setting up a “universal online privacy standard” – same setting choices, same levels, same implications on privacy across all websites. Is this likely to happen, probably not, but it should.  Maybe even have a unique privacy setting attributed to you as a person that carries along with you as you surf the web and dynamically adjusts the settings of a website as you visit it.

Second, there is no effective way to manage age appropriate content exposure.  Online filtering programs work to some degree and have gotten better over time, but are far from be 100% effective.  I dont think you can or should control what people put online, but we need to find better ways to manage its exposure – this is especially true for video content (either user generated or professional).

So my solution to this challenge lies in open source and the movie rating system.  We clearly dont want a central authority telling us what we can and cannot watch and we also dont want them to a central authority to rate online content as they do for films (eg. PG13, R etc.).  However, I believe it would be interesting to explore an approach that provided “crowd sourced content rating”.  So for example, each website or piece of video content could have a tag that a user could provide input on (eg. 20 people rate a video as PG13, 600 at R – which would then provide some guidance to users and a better filer mechanism).  ultimately parents and kids make personal choices on what to watch, but at least such a system would provide a universal guide and benchmark to make informed decisions.

I believe by better addressing the issues related to online privacy and content the benefits of the internet can be more effectively consumed by both children and adults.  The problems will never be solved to our complete satisfaction (as they are not in the real world either), but more tangible progress can and should be made.

As usual, I welcome your comments and insights.

Zia.

Starbucks vs. Peet’s: Why the IPhone matters more than the coffee.

The coffee at Peet’s tastes better than Starbucks (at least to me). Peet’s offers free wifi while at Starbucks you have to pay for wifi through AT&T.  The price of a medium Café Latte at Peet’s and at Starbucks (I refuse to call a medium a “Grande”) in Palo Alto is the same @ $3.35 . So at Peet’s I get better tasting coffee, free wifi and at the same price – yet I go to Starbucks more often.

Why you ask. It is because of technology and the IPhone !

For those of you that are IPhone users and coffee drinkers you will have no doubt downloaded the Starbucks locater application. An easy to use app with fully enabled location-based service the myStarbucks application finds the closest store, lets you know the store hours, get directions and even lets you invite a friend directly from the application. Now even though I prefer Peet’s coffee to Starbucks, when I am in an area I am not familiar with there is no way for me to locate a Peet’s coffee easily. As such, I simply press a couple of buttons on my IPhone and it instantly tells me the closest Starbucks and gives me directions on how to get there.

Now to make it even more easier, Starbucks is piloting a new mobile payment application that allows you to pay for your coffee using your IPhone.  Essentially you pre-load money into the application and after ordering your drinks swipe the barcode from your IPhone app over the barcode reader at the store and presto you are done. Starbucks is piloting this application at selected stores in the Silicon Valley and Seattle.

I am sure that because of these simple and easy to use IPhone applications Starbucks is attracting more customers to its stores.  It only costs $20,000 – $30,000 to build an IPhone application – a small amount compared to what I am sure is spent on traditional advertising.   You would think that Peet’s would figure this out and realize that they are losing customers to Starbucks simply because people find it harder to locate their stores.

Innovative, easy to use and relevant mobile applications are changing the way we work and play.   Companies that truly take the time to understand the needs of their customers and provide such powerful yet simple mobile solutions have much to gain.  

Zia.

Open Government – are Data.Gov and Apps.Gov delivering on their promise ?

There is certainly a long list of challenges facing the Obama administration – the economy, healthcare, and two wars just to name a few.  Regardless of your politics, I think there is one aspect of the Administration’s efforts that require further discussion and exploration.  On his first day in office President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.  The memorandum outlined a commitment to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government…” It promised to “ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”  My intent in this post is not to have a broader discussion on the topic of the Administration’s openness, but rather to explore two very specific components of that pledge – the launch of Data.Gov and Apps.Gov

As part of his focus on technology as a key driver of government effectiveness, openness and efficiency President Obama appointed two impressive and accomplished executives to lead this effort:   Vivek Kundra (Federal CIO) and Aneesh Chopra (Federal CTO).  I have had the privilege of meeting and talking to both Vivek and Aneesh and have been impressed with their plans to leverage technology, especially Web 2.0 and Social Media, to provide enhanced services to citizens.  Data.Gov and Apps.Gov are two important components of that effort.

Data.Gov was launched in 2009.  The stated objective of Data.Gov is to” increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.”  Data.Gov provides three kinds of data catalogs.  “Raw” Data Catalog: a catalog with instant view/download of platform-independent, machine readable data (e.g., XML, CSV, KMZ/KML, or shape file formats).  Tools Catalog: a catalog to provide the public with simple, application-driven access to Federal data with hyperlinks. This catalog features widgets, data mining and extraction tools, applications, and other services. Geodata Catalog:  a catalog that includes trusted and authoritative Federal geospatial data. This catalog includes links to download the datasets and a metadata page with details on the datasets, as well as links to more detailed Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC) metadata information. (source: data.gov faq)

Currently the data set includes 1,078 Raw Data, 484 Tools and 167,394 Geodata records.   A review of the data currently available” by Agency” provides some interesting insight.  The US EPA had 6,151 downloads of data the week prior to Feb 8th, 2010.  The Department of the Interior and the US Treasury came in second and third with 4,352 and 4,079 downloads,  respectively.  The US EPA also had the most raw data sets at 426 while the lowest number of data sets came from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission at zero (yes that is zero – somehow this made me a little nervous !).

The US Government and its many agencies produce massive amounts of data each year.  By providing academics, researchers and companies access to this data we may enable  individual researcher to find a cure for cancer or a college department to discover a weather pattern that can prevent natural disasters.  This is the power of open access to data – for the people, by the people !

Apps.Gov  is a very interesting and potentially powerful initiative.   Essentially this is a private cloud for the US Government.   Managed by the General Services Administration (GSA), Apps.Gov includes Business Apps, Productivity Apps, Social Media Apps and Cloud IT Services. The platform/exchange is similar to other successful private sector application exchanges such as the  SAP EcoHub , the Salesforce AppExchange and of course the  Apple Iphone App Store.

Apps.Gov provides government agencies a single marketplace to buy and use a broad range of applications.  In the Business Apps section for example  HP has 526 solutions listed, Microsoft has 65, VMWare has 716 and Salesforce has 67.  Several other companies have multiple solutions available.  Apps.Gov could have a profound impact on how the US Government buys and consumes software. 

So here is the Right Question:  Have data.gov and apps.gov delivered on their promise of fostering an open, efficient and effective government ?   Are they on the right track and what would you do different ?

I would welcome your views and opinions and especially your stories if you have used data from these sites or have any other experience related to this effort.

Thanks.

Zia.

Photo Credit: Ian-s

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