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Weekly Column

Reality Check: What does Gartner really DO?

Status: [CLOSED] comments (113)
By Robert X. Cringely

I have this notion to write a series of columns from time to time under the title "Reality Check" -- columns intended to explain how the world of Information Technology actually functions. Because like any other entrenched, complex, and often closeted industry, things in IT don't really work the way many people think they do. I'm guessing the Vatican is a bit like that, too. So I'll be looking at various IT players and their roles and trying to put them into perspective, much as I did recently with a column or two about the role of computer consultants. This week the topic is Gartner Inc., or rather all the Gartner-like operations that give advice about technology to America's largest businesses: what do these guys actually DO?

Not much of real value I'm afraid -- at least of value in my view.

While Gartner is the biggest of these outfits, I need to say that my comments apply equally to Gartner's main competitors, Forrester Research, International Data Corp. (IDC), and the Yankee Group.

Here's what Gartner says it does, straight from their website:

"Gartner offers the combined brainpower of 1,200 research analysts and consultants who advise executives in 75 countries every day. We publish tens of thousands of pages of original research annually and answer 200,000 client questions every year. We can help you make smarter and faster decisions. Our years of relevant experience and institutional knowledge prevent costly and avoidable errors. Be confident that with Gartner, your decisions are the right decisions."

So Gartner and, by association, Gartner's competitors help customers make better IT decisions. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But why do governments and big companies NEED help making IT decisions? Don't most companies hire IT professionals to make those decisions in the first place? Do they really need to spend more than $2 billion per year between these consulting companies just to make better IT decisions?

The truth is that there is no IT "profession." Most of what IT managers know about IT they learn from vendors, consultants, and folks like Gartner. Because they feel isolated, and because the IT vendor/consultant/media system encourages them to worry about such things, IT managers tend to feel they must have their important decisions validated and Gartner is the most popular place to find validation. Yes they wield a lot of power, but it is often the power of discovering the obvious.

It's all about churn. If customers aren't buying stuff they won't worry about buying decisions, so they are always encouraged to buy. If customers don't change their IT infrastructure (or change it too slowly) they might become confident in their own ability to make the right choices, which would threaten the consultant relationship.

How often do these consultants tell their customers that everything is fine and no action is required? Almost never. In fact I'm tempted to say "absolutely never" simply because I haven't heard of such an instance, but I'm playing it safe here.

After all, I'm attacking the very temple of IT.

There are themes at Gartner and its competitors -- ideas that are presented on an almost seasonal basis like adding fins to change a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker into a 1957 Chrysler New Yorker. Two such themes that are popular with such consultants right now are offshoring/outsourcing and getting rid of legacy applications to gain agility, whatever that is.

I've written columns and columns about offshoring and outsourcing and the success of both policies is decidedly mixed, unless perhaps you are outsourcing down the street and offshoring Lake Michigan.

Outsourcing, while a very popular recommendation to improve IT, is treating the symptom and not the problem. The problem is IT applications require lots of ongoing maintenance and that costs labor, meaning REAL MONEY. Rather than make applications more reliable and reduce problems, IT managers seem to prefer shopping for cheaper labor. The problems are still there. It is cheaper to fix them with offshoring and outsourcing, true, but it often takes longer. If the end users -- the people who actually make MONEY for the company (IT doesn't, Lord knows) -- are unable to work from time to time, this is okay because IT is spending less money.

Yeah, right.

Much of this comes down to the decided lack of professionalism in IT, which is after all a very new job classification. There is a huge difference, for example, between someone with an engineering degree and someone in IT who calls himself an engineer. Real engineers are often valued employees. Their opinions matter and they have real responsibilities. Good companies know engineers are important to their business and treat them accordingly. But IT workers are a commodity and are treated as such. Many IT workers are clueless about the technologies they are working with. They aspire to be project managers and are often not very good at that either.

Into this knowledge vacuum come the vendors, who want to sell stuff, and the consultants like Gartner, Forrester, IDC, and the Yankee Group, who need IT managers to feel uncertain about every decision except the decision to buy something, anything. Then look at the number of "research reports" that are commissioned by vendors. Uh-oh.

The five P's of IT are Pride, Prejudice, Politics, Price, and Performance, with the last two being by far the least important. Consultants like Gartner are very useful for minding the pride and politics, their real function being to provide $2 billion worth of IT management CYA per year.

Now that I have alienated an entire industry, let's turn to this week's deal for Hewlett-Packard to buy Electronic Data Systems for more than $12 billion in cash. I'm not here to say this is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas, but I wouldn't do it.

The goal here seems to be size for the sake of size, because it sure isn't size for the sake of profitability. This is a business segment, remember, that IBM has been carefully and quietly leaving for more than a year now only to have HP jump in with both feet by purchasing a competitor less profitable at this stuff than IBM. The result will be a bigger business for HP that returns lower profit margins, which makes no sense to me.

I wonder what would happen to an outfit like HP Services if the company just decided to forget about acquisitions and simply invest $12+ billion in their current operation? Heck, half the people working right now in HP Services probably worked at some point in their careers for EDS (or IBM). What DNA is HP acquiring here that they don't have already?


It just looks better to Wall Street, which loves acquisitions with their associated investment banking fees but doesn't seem to understand in the least the idea of boldly investing in an existing business.

Bill Hewlett would shake his head.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (113)

Brilliant. My experience is that they offer you to advertise your company through their "studies" and ask for money to do so.

Luis Alonso-Lasheras | May 26, 2008 | 3:31PM

Interesting read and point of view, but there are so many incorrect assertions that I'd discount much of what you're saying about the "Gartner industry." Going with your logic, besides consultants we don't need schools, universities, trade groups, magazines, books, or any other sort of avenue by which trends, observations, and instruction are given on any subject. To counter:

- There IS indeed an IT profession. There are schools that teach it, there are skills associated with it, and there are degrees in it. Like all professions, some people in IT are good, others are horrible, and most everyone else is in the middle.

- Like most other "advise" professions, some people are good IT consultants and some are bad. Not everything a consultant says is gold nor useless.

- In my experience, IT managers are some of the least "isolated" people compared to other professions. Most everyone in IT learns from others, shares their experiences, and networks for skills/jobs. IT is just too large and complex for IT managers to remain isolated.

- Consultants rarely say "everything" is fine since customers bring them in due to things not being fine. In the same vein, mechanics rarely say a car is fine and doctors rarely say you're fine -- it's because they're not consulted by customers/patients unless things are not (or suspected to not be) fine.

- Outsourcing and off-shoring are not trends that consultants suggested or created. These are trends that have been rising for three decades. All the consultants did was just observe these trends/practices and then recommend/not-recommend them to clients as solutions to problems.

- There are many non-professionals in IT just like any other field. Yes, there are "engineers" in IT like Network Engineers and Systems Engineers without engineering degrees, but I believe pound-for-pound IT is a more degree- and certification-focused field than most other fields. AND the degrees and certs are updated more often since the technology is changing so rapidly.

- IT is a vast massive complex field that's naturally progressing at high velocities in terms of technology, methodologies, and practice. No person or company has the ability or capability to continually assess technologies, methodologies and best practices within or without their industry or even their company, determining quickly and accurately their best course of action. This is where firms like Gartner come in.

- In the U.S. federal govt alone, over $60B is spent annually on IT. According to the GAO, a large portion of it is wasted on duplicative or sub-standard systems/work. If the entire $2B spent annually on Gartner-like orgs is borne by the federal govt alone but helps it avert/improve just 5% of projects/systems, we're ahead of the game.

Phil Cherbaka | May 27, 2008 | 4:59PM

Interesting statement: "half the people working right now in HP Services probably worked at some point in their careers for EDS (or IBM)."

I used to work at one of these 3 consulting companies. I see that one thing those companies have in common, they encourage all the consultants to have knowledgebase as "broad as possible". If you lookup the job description they are posting, you will see some of the trend. This maybe their strategy to obtain more business, and to have people who knows how to sell and talk with all the different aspects of IT. The trade off is, not everyone will have proper expertise in the certain area that is essential for a particular implementation. The knowledge maybe at high level that doesn't bring in enough insight for the proper aspect. Therefore, don't have the myth that "big brand is always better", it all depends on "getting the right people with the right expertise", for the "right tasks".

People have also experienced that some Gartner consultants may not be familiar with their own report, this is normal when that's not the area of their particular "expertize".

It's good to check the conslutant's credential and resume, sucess story...etc., even when they are coming from the "brand name conultaning companies".

Vivian Chang | May 27, 2008 | 5:20PM