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Hoodoo Gurus

Hoodoo Gurus

The March issue of this magazine carried an enlightening article on how best to use consultants ("Cowboys and Consultants"). The bottom line was that employing consultants is very worthwhile, provided you know how to manage the relationship. Well, consultants are one thing, but analysts and other assorted gurus are another.

These creatures abound in the IT industry. Journalists, who perhaps see more of such "experts" than anyone else does, have a term of mild derision for those who visit our shores: visiting firemen. They arrive to show us how to put out our own fires. They lay down the law with iron assurance, but are Teflon-coated when their predictions don't pan out.

Why the fascination with the pronouncements of analysts? I think it's because we live in such rapidly changing times, both in technology and in business, and we feel we can use all the help we can get. This assumes one listens to the analysts out of a genuine desire to understand, and not merely to grab a convenient prognostication as a club in a dispute.

The broader the guru's alleged field of expertise, the wider ranging his or her opinions, ergo the more suspicious you should be. Management theorists are the classic example (although Peter Drucker is an honourable exception in my book).

If you tried to keep up with all the fashions in management, you'd hardly have time for anything else.

You undoubtedly like to hear case studies of real companies. I know I love to read about them. But even here, you need to be sceptical. In particular, was the company in question really so successful with its brilliantly strategic IT approach? Remember, most of the hero companies quoted in In Search of Excellence were in trouble five years after the book came out.

Be even more sceptical over the "generic" stories some gurus use. I am indebted to a fascinating US magazine called Fast Company for alerting me to these. Its resident "Consultant Debunking Unit" regularly takes apart many of the tales or metaphors that are most popular with the, shall we say, less intellectually rigorous gurus. For example, we've all heard the famous Boiling Frog analogy.

The amphibians are said to be so dim that you can put them in a pot of water and, slowly raising the temperature of the water to boiling point, cook them.

This is a potent parable for managers who don't realise that environmental conditions have changed and so fail to react appropriately. Only trouble is, the frog story is a fable. Tests show Kermit will hop out in plenty of time if things start to get too hot. But never let the truth get in the way of an exciting presentation.

I tend to trust instead the conclusions of analysts who conduct proper research studies. There are some who know how to design a survey with a valid sample and questionnaire. They have to be more reliable than those - no names, no pack drill! - who so far as I can see get their insights by wetting a forefinger and holding it up to see which way the wind is blowing.

What can you do? Some analysts do have useful things to say. I suggest it's akin to the art of successfully reading body language: any one sign by itself can be misleading. To get a reliable indication you need a cluster of related signals.

Always get the Australian angle on any purported trend. Bear in mind that many surveys touted are US, and don't necessarily apply here. You already have access to local user stories, starting with those in ComputerWorld. Join InTep forum (my fellow CIO columnist Peter Hind runs them); these are restricted to users and will help you learn from other people's real life experiences.

There is, after all, simply no substitute for establishing your own baseline to help guide your judgments.

Steve Ireland is the Associate Publisher of ComputerWorld

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