The rhetoric and reality of IT decision making

When it comes to deciding on vendor relationships, you have to assume you're being sold to by everyone and not rely any any single voice

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There was a time when IT admins would determine their purchases based on needed feature set and vendor reputation. But over time, a variety of "help" -- consultants, analysts, research firms, traditional media, independent bloggers, and sites aimed at gathering user comments -- came along to sway IT's purchasing decisions. So who can you trust these days?

Are so-called neutral insights you're looking at actually paid for by a vendor on the back end? How do you decide what direction to go in when faced with a Top 10 list that says one thing; a Gartner, IDC, or Forrester report that leans another way; and a vendor or media site that offers independent input from other IT pros along with vendor-written blogs and paid ads?

The truth is you need to realize you're being sold to. The invisible forces of marketing are trying to sway your purchasing decisions to this vendor or that vendor. Even when you are talking to another IT pro or reading an independent review, you're being sold on a product that the IT pro or reviewer honestly believes is the best option. They've become willing evangelizers for the product.

That's not bad, as long as you know their opinions are truly their own. It's much trickier when you're not sure: Is that review really uninfluenced by the publication's advertising? Did that customer get a special deal on the product in exchange for speaking about it? Is that blogger really independent or an unacknowledged agent of a vendor's marketing team? Is the consultant speaking at a sponsored presentation relaying his or her opinion or that of the sponsor?

Often, marketers look for people who already believe in their product and get them selected to speak or write about the product -- so the opinion is honest but magnified by the vendor. Critical voices are likely not invited to that particular party.

Now that the rose-colored glasses are off, here is the good news: It's OK to be sold to. What's not OK is to believe the first story you are told. You still need to evaluate the product and its vendor, which means looking for multiple inputs, knowing some of them may be (secretly) part of the vendor's marketing agenda.

For example, IT organizations going all in with Microsoft on Office 365 offerings will often hear the sales folks tell them, "There's no need to buy any third-party add-ons because it's all built in!” They simply believe it because, well, Microsoft said so. Or they'll hear it from an add-on vendor: "Office 365 is great, but you really need a third-party add-on to make it more secure -- our add-on, that is." A consultant experienced with a particular vendor's offerings will likely encourage its use as well.

Blindly believing such a sales pitch is a sign of dysfunction between IT and business units. It's often easier to take that single expert's or established vendor's recommendation than to do the needed homework. Maybe the recommendation is spot on, but maybe there's a better option. You have to do the research before committing.

Too often I hear "Gartner's Magic Quadrant says" or "the Forrester report recommends" as the final word on what is truly best in class for a given need. Such analyst research is valuable -- but not sufficient. When considering a vendor to form a relationship with, it's critical to hear from a variety of sources, especially because many analysts have secret methodologies and business relationships with those they recommend. The same is true of consultants. Their opinions may be honest, but you can't tell for sure because transparency is lacking.

In the end, any insight you obtain can be valuable, whether from a vendor, consultant, analyst, independent publication, or IT pro. But don't believe the rhetoric from one source. Weed through the rhetoric to find the reality.

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