Karen E. Starr
Fifteen years ago, the world of information technology (IT) was a relatively simple one. A company seeking to put computer systems in place selected a vendor - say IBM or Digital Equipment Corporation - that provided a single solution: hardware, operating system and software. The available pool of vendors was fairly small.
But that pool has flooded its banks. Today there are thousands of vendors selling to that same company, inundating the IT staff with a morass of marketing messages. Out of these thousands of vendors, literally hundreds might be selected for deployment by a single company, which then faces the formidable task of integrating everything from sales automation to accounts receivable.
In addition, technology itself is changing so quickly that IT professionals are hard-pressed to keep up with the new array of products that appear almost daily. Hardware life cycles have gone from years to months, with ever-increasing improvements in technology and pricing making systems obsolete even as they're delivered. Even software, which used to be considered a lifetime investment, can rapidly lose its worth before the user has turned even one gray hair. Nor is there any guarantee that the vendor you buy from today will be there to support your purchase tomorrow. These pressures, coupled with the vagaries of budget and the movement toward downsizing, place tremendous stress on the IT professional.
Predicting the future
Enter the Gartner Group, self-deprecatingly described as "technology investment advisor" to corporate America. Boasting 7,500 clients worldwide, including 33 percent of the Fortune 1000, the Stamford, Connecticut-based firm has become one of the most influential voices in the computer industry. While the Ann Landers of corporate America may be feared by some and revered by others, even its president and CEO, the charismatic Manny Fernandez, hedges about the company's ability to be right about the technology field.
"A lot of people want to pick winners, but the best you can do these days is to try not to pick losers," he states. "Our overall mission is to try to make life easier for both the user and the vendor by making the selection process more efficient and providing more clarity."
Whether you measure leadership by market share or sheer influence, the $395 million Gartner Group is definitely on top. Its closest competitor is only one-tenth its size. Even software Goliath Microsoft has felt the effects of Gartner's influence. When Windows 95 hit the streets, the Gartner Group advised its clients to wait at least six months before purchasing Windows 95 to give Microsoft time to work out the bugs in its highly touted program.
Yet many people who have seen the Gartner Group quoted on CNN or in The Wall Street Journal still may wonder, what exactly does it sell? Basically, the answer is brainpower, shrewdly packaged in the form of research reports, online information bulletins and a retainer service that includes ad-hoc conversations with its staff of more than 400 analysts, who have an average of 15 years of experience in their fields of expertise. Companies pay between $10,000 and $19,000 a year for each of the Gartner Group's products. They buy Gartner's services for a number of different reasons. A company making a technology decision could use Gartner's research to aid in its evaluation or might outsource the decision process to Gartner altogether. MIS directors, knowing that a wrong decision might cost them their jobs, have used the Gartner Group as a kind of insurance policy. And, in a field where investments can be huge and the possibility of making a wrong decision looms at every turn - coupled with the danger of loss of time if the technology fails or people don't like it and refuse to use it - the stakes are enormous. In addition, people at the top of many corporations - presidents, CEOs, CFOS and COOS - may have gotten there through the sales, marketing or financial channels. What do they know about software, hardware and integrated technology? Thus the Gartner Group stands as a kind of moat protecting the corporation at every level from the disaster of a bad technological decision.
Integrity is the top priority
Gartner's intellectual assets are its greatest strength, and the company prides itself on the quality of its research. Although objectivity is essential, analysts can be opinionated and are encouraged to take strong positions. Since the Gartner Group's client base includes vendors, sometimes a conflict occurs - not all vendors can receive favorable write-ups. "We do not sit on the fence," says Fernandez. "We've had clients who have canceled our service because they're unhappy with what we've written about them - and that's okay."
Richard Eldh, vice president of (continued on page 2)