[GUEST POST] How not to be an analyst? By Jon Collins

Today’s guest post is a long(wish) read by Jon Collins from GigaOm (LinkedIn, @jonno) following our IIAR Webinar on “How not to be an industry analyst?

If you enjoy this, why not check his “How not to write an autobiography?

 

Jon Collins: How not to be an industry analyst (IIAR website)Introduction – a glass of wine…

For a start, a bit of background. I never meant to be an industry analyst, not as such: indeed, having done my time as a programmer, then IT manager and various forms of consultant, I hadn’t a clue what one was. Back in 1998, I was responsible for training and other informational services at a mid-sized consulting firm when a report from a company called “Butler Group” came across my desk. That was my first connection with the world of analysts.

A year or so later, I was looking for something new (a cyclic habit in my career); I was also drinking a rather fine glass or two of red, when I stumbled across an advert from Bloor Research. With my inhibitive defences down, I banged off an email straight away.  I barely had time to regret it, as the following Monday I went for an interview… and the rest is an 18-year career.

These were exciting times. At the turn of the millennium the dot-com was still bubbling up: we launched a couple of web sites and face to face forums at the time (IT-Director and IT-Analysis) and set to making the most of the complexity and uncertainty, charging for clarity and simplicity. I remain proud of my 2001 report about the inevitable move towards universal service provision. We call it the cloud these days.

I paraphrase history, but by and large, analyst firms emerged in the mid-1990’s, as attention moved from bespoke ‘turnkey’ solutions and towards custom-built software. From there, they made sure to cover the space like any good ecosystem. So, has anything changed, over the past two decades?

I have worked for a variety of smaller firms and I have done a short stint at a bigger one —IDC. I’ve spent an awful lot of time hanging out with analysts, AR professionals and the firms they represent. I’ve also spent some time not being analyst, working behind the scenes to help some of the largest vendors tell their stories. And this, to an extent, is mine.

I don’t know if you are familiar with the C.S.Lewis classic, The Screwtape Letters — written from an old devil to a little demon? In a similar vein, I thought I’d capture some of the things I might tell my younger self. As they say, getting it wrong is the best form of experience, and it is good to share.

Analyse, don’t preach (the clue is in the name)

Jon Collins: analyse, don't preach (IIAR website)What’s an analyst, anyway? While this is a very good question, you can vanish up your own rear trying to understand how or why you are trying to understand things. I didn’t have any such challenge: when I started, an empty vessel, I was just pointed in the right direction, wound up and sent off — with some excellent mentors to guide me.

Had I not had such guidance, I would advise myself, simply, to start analysing. Luckily enough, I’d always done that, both as a consultant and beforehand (as one client said, “Of course, I knew all of that, but it’s nice to see it all in one place.”). The job is to make sense of all this complexity — you can prioritise areas that are less well understood, or you can keep a count of what’s being sold, or any other area you fancy.

Simply doing research makes you an analyst, for better or worse. Back to my client’s glib remark, analysts are service providers first and foremost, outsourced intellectual services to help all kinds of powerdecision makers with over-stocked brains. Consulting firms, publications such as HBR, journalists and indeed vendors do pretty good analysis: I often think we stand on the shoulders of giants, but in doing so we can sometimes see that little bit further.

As a result, a certain kudos surrounds being an analyst: indeed, the more analysts are seen as high priests of insight, the more true it becomes. A few grey hairs can be an advantage, as these add to that all-important gravitas (a word I learned early on, hat-tip to James Cooper). But, I would advise my younger self against prima-donna-ish behaviour, or seeing this privileged position as a soap-box to preach from.

 

Don’t get distracted by influenceJon Collins: don't get distracted by influence (IIAR website)

Being an analyst also means you are not an artist. The latter group struggle with the dilemma of the purity of creative thought, versus the dingy world of commerciality (though everyone has to eat). As analysts an insight service, it is wise to make this what people are prepared to pay for. Which generally means ‘business and IT decision makers’ alongside other stakeholder groups — investors as well as the broader technology community.

This opens the door to a wide variety of business models, touching many points in a complex web of decision making cycles. No restrictions exist on analyst business models: vendors may be prepared to pay for certain things, as may end-user businesses, government institutions and so on. A pan-governmental grant to research the current thinking and practice of AI may result in the same outputs as a vendor-financed, or a subscription-based report.

Of course, some will look to put categories on all this. There’s a school of thought which says that analysts only matter if they influence the moment of hard-nosed purchasing, within the enterprise buying cycle. While it’s true that contract negotiations are very important (and those who can impact it will be pretty powerful), it makes for a pretty myopic view. Wherever people are looking for insight to help their decisions, if you can reduce costs and increase benefits, you are worth having around.

Debates around the nature of influence ultimately boil down to this, but the truth is that just as technology is becoming increasingly fragmented, dynamic and complex, so are the decisions and insights around it. Developers and engineers, outsourcing managers, and indeed lines of business are all players in the game; meanwhile, vendors want to be around for the longer term, even as they focus on shorter-term revenues.

Influence is a two-edged sword. It is thought analysts can have an opinion on anything, particularly by journalists approaching a deadline (“We need an analyst comment!” “Who’s available?”). This can be flattering (as well as offering the oxygen of publicity) but it is shallow. Equally, keynote speaking and writing branded marketing materials are fine if the research exists to back them up, but presenting opinion as fact or worse, endorsing a vendor’s position for money, creates a steep and slippery slope.

I would argue you should be insightful first, influential second. Celebrities can impact stock markets, but for all the wrong reasons. So, find a research-based model that works for a decision making audience you consider worth targeting.

 

Jon Collins: Beware of silo-ed thinking (IIAR website)Beware of silo-ed thinking

The above kind of assumes you have any say in business models, which the majority of analysts do not, as they work for bigger firms. The point still stands however, that the analyst’s job is to offer insight-driven guidance to decision makers. One challenge faced by bigger firms more than smaller firms is that of inertia, and therefore thinking, so models and practices can become out of date.

For example, ‘consumerisation’ is still sometimes seen as a bad thing, and for sure, if you are a vendor used to selling to the IT department, you won’t want to see their power undermined. But it’s equally important to understand how lines of business are increasingly empowered — the flip-side of consumerisation. You won’t find a quadrant for that; indeed, recent research I was involved in showed that technology-related information wasn’t really reaching business decision makers.

Examples are frequent, and indeed, undermine the credibility of the entire industry which is still largely oriented around product selection criteria and models, even if it makes role-based tweaks or puts out thought leadership papers. “Market sizing the cloud/GDPR/IoT/Hadoop etc” statements are reflections of multiple worlds colliding. Meanwhile, while scope is important, it can lead to silos of thought: cf “That’s a layer 7 problem,” “It’s all about management,” “Nobody cares about security,” and “that’s not an enterprise procurement decision.”

On the upside, as well as offering a better service to end-user-business-decision-maker and other clients, there can be career and commercial advantage in being able to change or broaden your thinking. As well as, simply, knowing that your views are congruent with what’s actually going on. I know, working for a big firm can feel like you are spending more time engaging in internal battles and getting views heard than actually doing the job, but it is still highly advisable to start from the perspective of what’s real

The trick is to be able to change your thinking. This is different from changing your mind: the latter assumes it was just an opinion anyway, whereas the former implies that you are working on the level of how the world is changing, rather than a more superficial view. This does come back to the power of research, as then an analyst is learning, and talking from a position of genuine, defensible authority. Research should guide both the current thinking and how it is framed.

 

Jon Collins: There's no "I" in analyst (IIAR website)There’s no ‘I’ in analyst

In being an Industry Analyst, you are analysing an industry. I know that’s obvious but the truth lies behind these two innocuous words. I’ve covered analysis above; meanwhile, the tech industry is an increasingly complex and distributed, dynamic and amorphous. It’s also, as I have learned over the past three decades, about people. People doing clever things; people brokering relationships; people making mistakes and adopting coping strategies. It’s an ecosystem of folks interacting with tech.

None of us are acting in isolation: when an analyst puts out unsubstantiated opinion which unfairly criticises a vendor, that reflects as much if not more on the analyst. Even more innocuously, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle comes into play: by measuring things, you can affect their behaviour. Whatever we think about quadrants or waves, they provide a great service in creating market spaces which then help technology decision makers understand what is going on.

As a result, it is incumbent on the analyst to recognise their own role in the ecosystem. An analyst can never be truly, 100% independent of the industry. The notion of an independent analyst is as flawed as it is misused: some see it to mean vendor-independent, while others see it as big-firm-independent; neither will be true if pushed to its logical conclusion, not only because there are no luddite analysts, but also because no analyst operates in isolation of the ecosystem he or she represents.

It’s a reason why the pay-per-play question — “If I spend money on Gartner, will I be more talked about?” will never fully go away. If vendors are not investing in analyst conversations, then they may not be heard so well. Of course there is room for abuse, but even without such a possibility, all stakeholders stand to gain from investing in the relationship.

These truths also play out in terms of the day to day. I remember long ago, seeing a post-it on an AR person’s computer. It listed seven analyst firms: The two ‘majors’, two mid-sized and three smaller firms (including my own at the time). The goal, as I saw it, was to get onto that post-it: we all have limited space in our heads, so we have to prioritise. This links to a whole seres of do’s and don’ts, above and beyond ‘simply’ doing world-class research analysis.

 

Jon Collins: Avoid the basic gotchas (IIAR website)Avoid the basic gotchas

Building on this, perhaps what I have learned most of all is that the industry analyst business is an ecosystem all of itself, built on people. This means that as well as understanding the table stakes — research and output, transparency of model and so on — analysts can also avoid some basic gotchas, and do their bit to deliver on the expectations of the role.

From an industry perspective, the most critical quality for an analyst is to be open and fair, or openly fair. This means being accessible before, during and post-research, for example to give a vendor the opportunity to contribute, to enable review of materials where applicable, or to offer a right to reply if not. If you don’t have a research agenda, it might be a good idea to have one for a slew of reasons, not least (for smaller firms) it minimises the risk of becoming the cart, not the horse.

Analyst briefings are an extremely useful tool: while analysts are right to be focused on the immutable stars, briefings help reset the theodolite on an ever-shifting sea. Or something. So, being open to briefings is a straightforward hygiene factor — note that it doesn’t mean you have to travel abroad, which can be very time consuming. Do your homework before briefings, and reflect the information in your outputs wherever possible.

Above all, look to add value — don’t assume that because you are an analyst you somehow deserve to be paid a premium for turning up. A briefing quid pro quo in my experience is to offer feedback, even if you will not be writing about the vendor in the short term. You have to earn the right to be seen as influential: this means being consistent, fair, rational and honest, respecting NDAs and delivering transparency and pragmatism.

In summary this is about no surprises — being clear about what you bring to the party, then bringing it as expected. In this complex world of no absolutes, analysts will continue to have a great deal to offer, as advisors, curators and guides. While nobody can second-guess what the industry will look like in 10 years time, we can say that analysts who align to their context will be in a better position to help. Perhaps the final advice I would offer is not to lose your sense of objectivity: in a changing world, clarity of thought is worth hanging on to.

 

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