Having a problem with IT? Blame the sales rep

Canadian information technology groups can’t seem to get IT right.

That’s according market researchers Info-Tech Research Group. In a new report called IT Priorities, researchers say 95 per cent of information technology (IT) groups “are not delivering some number of projects on time or to the full satisfaction of the business executive.” The observation is culled from a survey of 1,400 IT decision makers from what are described as mid-sized companies in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

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It’s a worrying figure, but in my view at least part of the blame is being laid at the wrong door.

First, before anybody runs away with the idea that IT project failure is rampant, it’s necessary to look further into the study’s findings. In a later section of the report, Info-Tech admits the majority of IT projects are in fact delivered on time, on budget and do meet expectations. So what’s eating the executives?

Well, some projects inevitably fail to measure up, and getting good results most of the time isn’t good enough, it seems. Failure is failure, and the infrequent missteps are tarnishing the reputation of IT groups in the eyes of business executives, the researchers say.

“Only 5 per cent of enterprises told us they were always on time,” the report states. “This indicates that 95 per cent of IT shops are not delivering some number of projects on time or to the full satisfaction of the business executive. This is a major contributor to a misalignment of business and IT.”

The latter statement seems a bit harsh, and arriving at such a definitive conclusion may even be a bit of a stretch. IT by its very nature is imperfect. Consider the breakable operating systems in widespread use at most companies, coupled with desktop hardware that often delivers less-than-predictable performance. As a result, it’s arguable that most businesses are pretty accustomed to experiencing something less than perfection when it comes to technology – and certainly by extension, IT projects (and that includes the “successful” ones).

But let’s take the researchers’ claim at face value. So what’s the problem?

Info-Tech asserts that the top three “perceived” reasons for project failures include unrealistic time frames, lack of staff, and poorly defined project scope – results that would make most IT consultants feel positively giddy, given that two of the three are practically open invitations for their services. These may be contributing factors, but in my experience the bottom line is simply that failures sometimes occur and people, even highly skilled IT workers, occasionally make mistakes. IT departments can’t always anticipate what will go wrong, nor do they usually know when they’re embarking on a doomed project.

But when laying blame for problems, here’s something the researchers may not have considered. Vendors rather than IT staff might be the ones ultimately at fault in some of the most serious project failures.

That assertion comes as a result of some rather passionate comments made during an informal session of IT World Canada’s most recent CIO Exchange, a regular meeting of top IT executives from government, finance and manufacturing. A pet peeve expressed during the latest meeting was that many IT companies are at best overstating some of the capabilities of their products. In some instances, it was reckoned that an overzealous salesperson sold a bill of goods that fell significantly short of what a CIO may have thought was being purchased.

This becomes a particularly nasty problem when the shortcomings of the solution don’t become apparent until the project is well under way. Those shortcomings can be the primary reason behind a failed (or at least late) project, but rather than the vendor, it’s the IT staff doing the integration work that tends to take the heat from management.

Let’s be clear about the magnitude of this sort of problem. I heard this complaint again and again from seasoned chief information officers, people who had lots of technical knowledge and experience dealing with vendors. If these guys get misled, how do you think smaller companies fare without the benefit of such experience?

For this group of CIOs there seemed to be no greater cardinal sin a vendor could commit than being less than truthful, but some also expressed dismay with tech companies that add additional features and capabilities to products that are quietly positioned as “value-adds.” The capability to do something is built into the product, but “you can’t make it work without them [the vendor] involved,” one CIO said, while others at the table nodded in agreement.

Distressing, too, is the fact that senior executives of these technology suppliers may not be entirely aware of this customer dismay, or of the less-than-forthright sales practices of some of their own reps. False claims by individual salespeople suggests a short-sighted sales approach aimed at getting the deal done, achieving the sales budget target and moving on to the next prospect. But would senior management actually approve of such activity if it meant that long-term customer relationships were being destroyed? Probably not.

This issue stems from the transient culture within many sales organizations. Besides a lack of commitment to a long-term relationship, the reps often don’t fully appreciate the capabilities of their product or the needs of their customer.

One CIO related how he’s apt to see a different sales representative each time his key IT supplier comes calling. The representative usually comes in cold, not having spoken to a previous account manager, and then proceeds to ask the same questions posed by their predecessors at earlier encounters. It’s a situation that frustrates the customer, who wonders why the company doesn’t take the time to understand his business and send knowledgeable salespeople who can propose solutions that might actually be useful.

While the sales culture at the technology suppliers experiencing these types of issues may not change any time soon, it pays for customers to be aware – and wary – of the potential pitfalls when adopting something new. When reflecting upon the failure of any IT project, a business can often learn from mistakes, both on the integration side and in dealings with vendors.

And even then, the fact is that problems in IT happen and they’ll continue to happen. But before lashing out at technology or the IT staff, business executives should look at the big picture and ensure they’re laying blame where it’s deserved.

–This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on March 31, 2005

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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