03:20 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin

The Observer: IT's Own Hallowed Trinity

Three issues--manageability, choice, and security--are forever twined and are remaking the IT world, says Lou Bertin.

The cover package of InformationWeek's Jan. 20 issue was all about the future of software and, most notably, about how astute companies will specifically be investing in the tools that will enable them to forge even tighter relationships with existing clients.

The goals of such strategies are unassailable, and the benefits of successful initiatives toward that end are manifest. The only fly in that particular ointment is that CRM initiatives work magnificently to maintain stable (if not static) relationships but provide little other than "gross" information in the way of early-warning systems that might detect significant changes in customer attitudes or comparable changes in terms of the conditions under which customers are operating.

Gathering such intelligence always has required and always will require eyes and ears in the street and a sensitive gut for sifting through what's transitory and what promises to be an enduring (read: at least nine months) reality. For the price you're paying for the right to have your eyes alight on this screen, consider this my contribution toward your very own customer-attitude assessment.

Conversing as I do with hundreds of InformationWeek's readers during any given month, I never fail to be struck by the unwavering consistency among you, despite the significant differences in terms of the sizes of the enterprises you represent, the markets your enterprises serve, and the role that IT plays within your enterprises. From the biggest to the smallest of organizations, from global giants to regional providers, from companies that are IT-centric to those where IT is a near-afterthought, the rules of the game remain the same.

All of you are concerned about costs, about being forced to do more with less, about trying to recoup credibility in the wake of previous suboptimal strategic investments (a perhaps unfair but nonetheless real factor in the eyes of management). All of you are forced to come up with some measure of ROI, despite the fact that ROI often is more myth than reality. And, most certainly, all of you today are facing more in the way of pressure from the fiscal managers within your companies than you have for the past five years or so.

Given all that, what's a savvy IT executive with understandable interest in goosing corporate profit and a concurrent healthy dose of enlightened self-interest in career preservation to do? Herewith, snapshots of what your counterparts are up to.

Foremost, virtually every InformationWeek reader I've talked to in the past few weeks has put the lie to the notion that incumbency remains a major factor in buying decisions. For vendors, having a successful, longstanding presence within any given company remains a positive, but it's by no means an insurmountable advantage. Part of that is rooted in human nature, where familiarity occasionally breeds contempt, and where familiarity might equally breed complacency. Neither is an especially attractive option.

Moreover, those of you with whom I've been speaking recently have been startlingly vehement in your negativity toward the legendary Wintel alliance. Seems as though folks have had a snootful of vendor-driven upgrade cycles, shakedowns for advance payments on software upgrades, and, generally, having vendors determine the rules of the game.

For years, it was the essence of simplicity for enterprise purchasers to look upon desktop and portable-computing devices as a three-year-and-out asset. It made for easy accounting, it allowed for the inevitable changes in price-performance calculations, and it preserved the myth of "easy" systems management because devices from the same supplier, built to the same specs, had to be identical, right?

What's happening now, though, is that the three-and-out hardware-purchasing cycle is being supplanted as companies hold onto those hard assets much longer, and for good reason. If computing demands on the part of most users don't much change and the hardware already in place is adequate to the task, why get rid of it because of accounting rules? Moreover, as personal-use hardware moves from 32 bits to 64 bits, wouldn't it make sense to be able to migrate without wholesale replacement of existing devices? It says here that it does. It also says here that enterprise buyers will be looking to those vendors that can fulfill those and myriad other demands in terms of real costs, real life cycles, and ease of systems management.

On the productivity-suite side of things, enterprise-grade alternatives to Microsoft Office have long existed. What's different now is that a whole lot of chickens have come home to roost, and those alternatives are being seriously evaluated and embraced. The advances being made in western Europe and the United Kingdom by non-Microsoft productivity-suite providers are, I think, a fascinating case study in how even the perception of noncustomer-centricity yields frustration that will be vented just as soon as alternatives are available. Well, those former shareware and now enterprise-ready alternatives are available, and it will be interesting to track their inroads here in North America.

Lastly, and equally significantly, the twined issues of systems security, disaster recovery, and business continuity--separate, though thoroughly linked, all--appear to be the only areas where companies are willing to spend without demonstrable return on investment. Insurance is always a difficult sell--there always are reasons why investing premiums elsewhere is an appealing prospect. "Wrong!" say so many of you, and for good reason.

There's little doubt that--other than physical damage on a scope that only once has been visited upon us--corporate and institutional information systems are the most attractive targets for those who would disrupt the world's economy. On a macro level, the smart money goes to security investments. On the micro level, the money goes to the same place. Any organization can live without a payroll system for a month or two--banks can still dispense cash. No organization can recover quickly or effectively enough from a hacker's attack on its CRM systems.

The television chef Emeril Lagasse refers to onions, carrots, and celery as "the trinity." It appears you and your colleagues are referring to the linked issues of manageability, choice, and security in the same vein.

As ever, here's to the upstart "trinity" suppliers--and buyers--among you.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Larry Olson, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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