Tech & Work

CIO: Stop being a snake oil salesman

Some CIOs offer a vendor-provided "magic bullet" for every business problem. Here's why that is wrong.

Flip to a random page of an IT-related magazine, or browse the hallowed virtual halls of a website like TechRepublic, and you will almost certainly see a vendor touting a "solution" of some sort. Brand name hardware and software vendors pitch everything from IT-based "Solutions to Sustainability" to the ill-defined but generally buzzword-rich "Business Solutions" that promise to make you a boardroom superhero simply by buying some shiny new boxes and wires, and a couple sparkling DVDs full of software.

On the surface, solution selling makes a good deal of sense, and has been applied to a wide variety of industries. The logic goes that the seller can sell more products when they're bundled as a solution, and the buyer gets a complete package to solve a business problem from a single source, rather than having to scour the earth and integrate disparate products to accomplish the same task. Where this breaks down in IT is that most of the "solutions" being pitched are purely technical ones. From virtualization solutions to "business continuity" solutions that are little more than a monitoring application and backup software, IT vendors attempt to frame the discussion around a business problem yet rapidly retrogress back to selling bits, bytes and shiny boxes.

This vendor-driven "solution" attitude has become prevalent in IT management as well, and has further alienated IT from the rest of the organization. IT gets a bad rap as a snake oil peddler since every business problem can be solved by the CIO for a few more dollars and a bit more hardware and software. Are your teams not communicating well? In walks the CIO with a "collaboration solution." Trying to make sense of social networks? How about a "Social Network Management Solution?" Just as you would be hesitant to trust the doctor that has a sample pill for every ailment, and an office full of promotional material from the manufactures of these wonder drugs, your peers are likely to be suspicious of a tech-based "magic pill" for every business problem.

Pitching solutions is a shortcut to understanding the true nature of a business problem. For vendors, it provides the illusion of knowledge about a specific business challenge, and allows for its sales staff to carry around a handy matrix with a list of buzzwords mapped to a specific "solution." For CIOs, it's a thin veneer of faux-empathy and understanding for the problem at hand, with a vendor-provided "magic bullet" for every problem. In each case, the most likely result is that the "solution" fails to actually solve the business problem. Taking a diet pill will never solve weight problems when the underlying problem is a daily triple stack cheeseburger and milkshake, just as a shiny new VoIP phone and webcam will not help your people talk to each other if collaboration is discouraged by the organization's structure and rewards system.

Next time you consider an overworked technology "solution," either as a vendor determining how to package and sell a product, or a CIO choosing one to implement, consider the actual business problem you're trying to solve. Identify the core issues contributing to the problem, and consider organizational and process change as the key tools to combat the issue and technology as the "special sauce" that accelerates and cements the change, rather than the silver bullet that will magically cure all aliments. Approach the problem first and foremost as a business one, not a technical challenge to be solved with more technology, and you will become a C-suite peer, rather than the village snake oil salesperson.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at and you can follow his blog at

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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