Be wary of IT ‘solutions’ that really solve nothing

Beware of information technology vendors bearing “solutions.”

Almost every technology company pitching its wares to the business community today is no longer satisfied to sell a mere IT product. They want to sell solutions.

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But while the technology industry is notorious for marketing pitches laden with jargon, those who sell computing hardware, software or IT services and call them solutions should be looked upon with particular skepticism and at the very least a healthy sense of reasonable doubt. Solutions in the context of IT are ambiguous and often not nearly what they seem. Upon close scrutiny they may, in fact, solve nothing.

Now that small and medium-sized businesses have been identified as the great unwashed in IT and a potentially lucrative target market, solutions and a solutions-selling approach have become a mantra. Vendors say customers – particularly those who lack the IT skills to integrate and manage information technology – want, need and absolutely must have solutions.

So what exactly is a solution?

Well, some might say it’s any form of technology designed to make businesses more competitive, more efficient and productive. In general, a solution might create, enrich or enhance a business process.

It can also enrich a vendor’s bottom line with a bigger sale, because it’s usually something “integrated.” It can be hardware, software and sometimes an IT service – or any combination of the three. The separate parts that comprise a solution are bolted together “seamlessly,” meaning everything works together (presumably without a hitch). And the whole of a solution is supposed to be something greater than the sum of its individual parts, which might previously been sold as separate products.

Drawing on more tech jargon, a solution might be described as “comprehensive and multifaceted.” So something positioned as an e-commerce solution could include back-end servers that run a range of transaction processing, cataloguing and inventory control applications. They, in turn, could be built within or on top of a website, which might be driven and supported by a range of communication services as well as an internal local area network that links other similar servers with other e-commerce applications. And maybe it’s all hosted by an IT service provider.

But a solution might also be something as simple as a remote access point – essentially a wireless data transfer device or router that looks like a small metal box and is described as a “wireless solution.”

In other words, the term means just about anything a vendor wants it to mean, and as a result, it’s quickly becoming synonymous with false promises and hollow hype.

These days, veteran IT customers recognize “solution” as a word that all too often means oversold capability, and businesses less experienced with technology should take a page from their playbook. Experienced customers are apt to be diligent and press hard on those who might seek to sell them solutions, looking for solid answers amidst the ambiguity. In addition to understanding what a solution comprises – what is actually being purchased in the way of a product or service – they’ll insist upon being clear about what that so-called solution does in terms of improving/creating/enriching business processes, precisely how it does so, how quickly it can be up and running, how rapidly its full functionality can be deployed, and how easily it can be integrated with the IT the company already has (or, more importantly, will it work at all with the IT they currently have). Additionally, they’ll ask how easily the function and capability of that solution can be modified when the business grows or changes, and whether the customer can actually manage it all on their own. All basic questions, but it’s surprising how many customers fail to ask them.

Sometimes the harder you press an IT vendor on these questions, the more you might realize the “solution” isn’t one.

A case in point is the recent example of a business partner event hosted by a major network equipment vendor. Throughout three days of sessions, the vendor relentlessly encouraged its partners to sell its solutions to customers, pointing out that the partners would be additionally rewarded for doing so by the vendor. This supplier’s concept of a solution customers are clamouring for is an intelligent network that combines many wired and wireless communication infrastructures that, to the user, appear and behave as a one massive network. This intelligent network, among other things, must be secure and have the intelligence to know who’s connected at any given time and what communication rights and privileges that business user has – and it must be able to grant these accordingly. The network must monitor the applications it supports and be able to grant greater or lesser importance to various processes and communications types. And this must all be done pretty much automatically.

The vendor is spot on, that’s a solution any business customer would want. The problem is that based on the technology that’s available, they can’t get it right now – and probably won’t any time soon. Yet it’s the “solution” that partners are being told to push.

“We’re moving from an industry that provided [communications services] transport, to an industry that provides solutions,” said the CEO of the networking company in defining his company’s sales strategy and in seeking to excite the assembled masses of partners. But the chief technology officer of that same company in a later interview admitted even the most basic first iteration of this described intelligent network is at least three or four years off, and that the vision is very much just that right now – a vision.

That’s solutions for you. Sometimes they’re grand ideas, and sometimes they’re simply combinations of products sold with grand promises.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t extremely useful IT products and services out there that have benefited many businesses – there really are solutions to some business problems. Rather, the problem is that too many vendors have misrepresented their products as solutions when they’re really nothing of the sort.

Customers are getting wise to the hype, and vendors would be well advised to turn down the volume of “solution selling.” Better yet, just call the product what it is – hardware or software or an IT service – and let the business buyer determine what it solves.

— This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 14, 2005.

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