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Friday, October 20, 2006

Opiate

A friend of mine mentioned Gartner (aka The Gartner Group) on his blog, and it got me thinking.

First, some background: He and I both work in a company whose IT department is heavily dependent on Gartner for advice on everything. (Read his post if you want an eloquent explanation, I can't be bothered).

There's a lot I can say about an organization whose policy it is to let an outside firm do their thinking for them, and none of it is good. Talk about a recipe for being a loser... At best, you can expect to run mid-pack among your competitors, assuming you have competition to start with, and they're all listening to the same advice as you. I think it shows a distinct lack of imagination.

Understand that this rant isn't necessarily a slam against Gartner. In fact, I applaud their ability to make the kind of money they do doing what they do. It's good work if you can get it. And I think I'm starting to figure out how they're able to do it.

Let's start with this sample of wisdom, direct from Gartner (I swear to you, I did not make this up):

"Enterprise architects must act as catalysts that speed the formation of unified business technology strategies and their execution. The enterprise architecture process must shift gears from limiting complexity by limiting choices to accelerating innovation and execution by coordinating complexity through unified business and IT strategy, decentralized execution and loose coupling among all related stakeholder disciplines."

Uuuuuh huh.

Care to parse that? No problem, I already have. Here's what it says:

Software is complicated. Making it work on a large scale takes some planning, some discipline, some consistency, and generally requires a well-thought out and well-designed system spread across the enterprise that does a lot of things for the people writing the checks. Get used to it.

Pretty straightforward, right? Obvious enough to make most people say "Duh!" before they realize they've said it, right? Right. You don't have to pay me for that statement; I didn't expend much effort translating it for you.

The Gartner version, on the other hand, appears in an expensive "white paper" (Gartner's name for a document printed on a piece of white paper), accompanied by many other such statements. It's worth thousands of dollars, and is much more verbose. Why? Someone had to put a lot of thought into it, because the Gartner version has more than just the function of conveying a piece of information. It's also designed to lull the reader/listener into a trancelike state, where all they can do is agree. If you don't believe me, read the statement again. Notice how, as you read, your eyelids get heavy, and you feel kind of dizzy and slow-witted. That's not senility setting in, that's the effects of the skillfully-crafted phrasing you're feeling. Call it "Gartner Gas". Notice how, at the end, you kind of thought "Uuuuuh... Okay. I guess..." Skeptical? Try it on your spouse. Read the Gartner sample to them, and watch their eyes glaze over. Ask them if they agree with it. They'll most likely say "Uuuuuuh.... I guess." Tell them it's from a respected management consulting group, and notice that they're more inclined to agree, even if they don't understand it. See?

This effect is intentional, and there is great value in it if you're someone who spends a lot of your company's money on advice from Gartner or other management consulting firms.

Imagine you're an MBA in a suit, sitting meekly in your boss's office while (s)he grills you about why things aren't going according to plan. You needn't worry, because you're armed with the very best in suit-defense technology: The Gartner White Paper. Wield this weapon and start spouting quotes from it, and you will be able to repel most attacks (except in one case, which I will describe below).

When you present a white paper, especially one that costs what the Gartner ones do, you gain instant credibility. It cost a mint, it must be good. The presence of a white paper in your hands shows you've done your homework, looked around, and haven't just pulled your ideas out of thin air. Not only that, but when you quote from a white paper, the artful phrasing kicks in. Your boss will be totally mystified by the flurry of enterprisey-sounding speech coming out of you. They will be lulled into submission, and have no choice but to agree.

On the other hand, suppose you're the same MBA getting grilled by the same boss, and instead of wielding Gartner, you just use simple speech to explain yourself. My translation, for example: "Software is complicated... yadda yadda... Get used to it." Oops. You just said the same thing as before, but there's no white paper to back you up. You delivered information in a simple, short pointed burst, and totally missed out on the Gartner Gas effect. Your boss, still fully lucid, won't be the least bit docile after hearing something so pointed and short. They may even think you're being flippant, or unduly terse. You could be killed.

This, I believe, is the value of Gartner. It's a big flame-retardent suit made out of titanium-coated bullshit. In the appropriate places, used on the appropriate people, it's invincible.

Of course, there are places in the world where this approach wouldn't work. There are companies out there who have about as much use for Gartner as a fish does for a bicycle (Thank God). These are companies that are generally considered to be (to borrow a phrase from Kathy Sierra) kick ass companies. Whip out a Gartner white paper in one of those places trying to defend a dumb decision, and after the laughter dies down, all that will be left of your MBA body will be a couple of bloody stumps. Actually, I doubt this happens very often. Companies like the ones I'm thinking of probably don't employ people who would have much use for Gartner white papers either (except perhaps to line the kennels of the dogs they bring to work).

Let's pretend we could go back in time to when Google first started out, and let's also pretend that instead of being smart geeks, founders Sergey and Larry were Gartner-dependent MBAs.

So one day, they're sitting in their corner office (let's assume that, as MBA leaders of a cash-poor startup, MBA Sergey and MBA Larry share the same corner office in a rented high-rise temporarily). Sergey looks out the window and says "Larry. We're going to build a search engine that's going to need to handle a lot of traffic. I don't know what computer to run this on." MBA Larry, without even looking up from his game of Sudoku, says "Mm." Sergey says "I know, let's call Gartner and ask them! I'm a Gold Member with Gartner, and the cookies they gave me at the last Big-G Symposium were delicious!" So, they take $20K of their precious venture capital and write a check to Gartner, and then hold a conference call on their Blackberries. The guy from Gartner tells them they should use Windows 2000 Server because, based on earlier advice from Gartner, MBA Sergey and MBA Larry built the Google search engine in Visual Basic.

All rightey... multiply the number of machines in Google's datacenters by the number of dollars for a legal copy of Windows 2000 server. The answer, for those of you without access to a calculator, is "hosed".

MBA Sergey and MBA Larry can take comfort in the fact that a well-respected management consulting company told them what they should do, but it didn't work. If they had angry bosses, they could use this as an excuse. They could claim that the idea of indexing the internet must be flawed. MBA Sergey and MBA Larry can therefore close up shop, fire all the VB programmers, and go get a lap dance with clear consciences.

Companies that do something unusual, something innovative, don't rely on someone else to do their thinking for them. Fortunately, the real Larry and Sergey didn't. There is no way Gartner would have told Google, "Uh, yeah. Just use Linux and customize it so it works for you. Make your servers out of plywood and velcro, and put them in a shipping container."

Management consulting companies are an opiate for the MBA masses.

2 Comments:

  • At 6:03 PM , Blogger Dale Cooper said...

    Really? Dependent on Gartner for advise on everything?

     
  • At 11:00 AM , Blogger Kelly said...

    Yeah, pretty much everything outside of marital or child-rearing advice. Nothing gets through the "Gartner Filter."

    The people who depend on G for everything aren't just in the executive tier. There are people (some of whom look like Charlie Chaplain) who rely on G for more than you may be aware of.

     

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