29 March 2011

Caveat emptor

By Andrew Clifford

We may think that IT is often mis-sold, but the real problem is that IT is often mis-bought.

One of the great ironies of IT is the contrast between how we think IT should be used and how IT is sold (and bought).

We think that IT should be used in a rational way. We analyse and prioritise requirements. We model business processes and data and draw up enterprise architectures. We involve stakeholders. We have detailed methods for project management and systems development. IT is a rational, systematic process designed to deliver to the common good of the organisation.

The way we sell IT is totally different. Good IT sales people, like all good sales people, find the senior executives who have money. They find out what problems they have, and what makes them tick as individuals. They grow the problems, and propose solutions that appeal to their individual agendas as directors and senior managers. Like all sales, IT sales is an empathetic process that delivers to individual agendas.

In this respect, IT is the same as any other industry. However, the intricacies and impacts of IT are so great that the way we sell IT, or more specifically the way we buy IT, is particularly dangerous.

You can see this problem just internally within organisations. Many IT departments see their role as "selling" IT into the rest of the organisation, and those who are good at it focus on meeting the individual agendas of the senior executives. This can lead to very political projects which have been agreed at the highest level, but where infeasible expectations, timescales and budgets have been set.

The problem is worse when purchasing solutions externally. Despite the procedures and good intentions of the IT department, many IT solutions are sold to senior executives without an appropriate level of diligence. As a vendor, you can end up implementing solutions that make no sense for the customer either technically or commercially, because that is what has been sold.

Imagine, instead of IT, that organisations were purchasing something else of similar cost and complexity. Maybe an aeroplane. In many respects, aeroplanes are simpler: they are already designed, there are stringent regulations about how they work, and having one does not change how everyone works in your organisation. A major IT solution is more like designing of a new type of aeroplane in which to fly all your employees around. Does the way we buy IT really do justice to something that is so technically demanding and that has such far-reaching consequences?

I do not blame sales people for these problems. The problems lie with how organisations purchase IT. Two things need to be in place.

First, IT specialists within the organisation must understand their role. Your job is not to sell IT into the organisation. Your job is as buyers, providing insight and expertise to the organisation on the acquisition of IT.

Second, decision makers need to take decisions more carefully. IT is more expensive, complicated, risky and specialised than nearly any other purchasing decision, and will have impacts way beyond your immediate needs. Beware of the salesman who understands you and really knows how to help - your colleagues are the ones to trust.