Business Technology: The View From The Left Coast: Sobriety
I spent the past couple of weeks on the West Coast, primarily in the San Francisco Bay area, but also with side trips to Seattle and Southern California. The trip was bookended by two singular occurrences--I'm tempted to call each of them highly charged, but I won't--that took place on opposite ends of the country: On the front end, out where I was in California, there was the entry of Arnold Schwarzenegger into the California gubernatorial race; and the night before I headed back east, there was the massive blackout in the Northeast. So we had political pyrotechnics on one side of the country, while on the other, there was an outbreak of darkness that was caused by either a lightning strike or an American problem or a Canadian problem or perhaps even some manner of rare atmospheric phenomenon occurring precisely on the borderline of the two countries, thus sparing each from the blame and shame.
In between those singularities, though, in the world of business technology that not so long ago generated an almost continuous string of wacky business gambits (remember the days of landlords insisting upon stock options in lieu of a percentage of lease payments?), martini bars with all-cement interiors, zillions with millions, and high-strung startups like Poodle.com, the West Coast showed greater signs of a return to normalcy. Not "normal" as in 40% annual growth, but normal as in strategies focused on understanding what customers need and on delivering that at reasonable prices and on attractive terms.
There was a widespread sense among dozens of IT vendors that while their erstwhile customers still aren't ready to spend much money, those customers appear to be getting pretty darn close to the point where they'll actually begin to put their autographs on the bottom of some purchase orders. Employment at many of these technology companies is holding steady, and several even said they're aggressively hiring. Parking lots, while certainly not coming close to their fun-house Dodge-'Em rides personae of the late '90s, were fuller than I've seen them in quite a while. And while the thrashings of the past 30 months have conditioned everyone to avoid saying anything that could be associated with buoyancy, we detected an unmistakable undercurrent of rational hope and forward-looking conviction that competitive edges must be maintained.
Many vendors are preparing to roll out new strategies, products, and services designed to be positioned in the minds of business-technology customers not just as technologically impressive stuff but as indispensable business tools--the kind of stuff that's not just nice to have, but whose absence will put you at a competitive disadvantage. We heard IT vendors speaking more fluently than ever before about listening to what customers say they need and then finding a way to give them that, rather than focusing precious time and attention on configuring their wares to confirm to some consulting firm's newest three-letter acronym that will have a life span of, oh, about six or seven months. For example, anybody want to try to explain what the real difference is among CPM (corporate performance management), EPM (enterprise performance management), and BPM (business performance management)? And I'm talking about the real, customer-focused, value-driven strategies behind each, not just the hackneyed definitions created by some consultancy to rationalize why they have three separate categories so that they can try to pursue three separate revenue streams, even though no serious business will really care about those distinctions a year from now.
I think we're emerging from the fogginess of the days when product strategies were ruled by acronyms and diagrams, and moving to a profoundly more-rational place where those abstract metrics are replaced by the more-tangible and enduring concepts of market relevance and business value and customer value. We're entering a more-sober era in which fleeting distractions, pyrotechnic sideshows, and straw-man rationalizations (STRs) are being relegated to the Irrelevance Ward where they belong.
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