Sex sells - even in the enterprise

As budgets gear up for renewal as the calendar changes over to a new year, how should an IT leader avoid the subtle sexiness and get the right hardware, software, and services?

Many in enterprise IT consider themselves fairly savvy. We spend our careers dealing with devices and software that few can understand, and resolve nuanced technical problems that would send "lesser" workers running home with a pounding headache. Despite that, we still fall victim to that oldest of marketing and selling tools: sex.

While the most blatant pitches are few and far between (although I have seen the occasional lithe model lovingly stroking a server), the pitch to base emotion is the same. We've all seen the classic advertisement where the mere purchase of a particular product wins us undying love, and turns the run-of-the-mill geek into a Clark Kent-esque superhero adored by the CEO. Or on a slightly more sophisticated level, a check penned to the right vendor and suddenly some thorny organizational problem from poor communication to government regulation is solved overnight. There might not be an overabundance of skin showing, but the pitch is essentially the same: emotion over reason or logic.

Similarly, most of us have sat in technical demos where the "gee whiz" features steal the show: those esoteric but amazingly cool functions that amaze with technical extravagance or user-friendliness, but are less than 1% of the solution rather than the "meat and potatoes" functionality that will be used on a daily basis.

As budgets gear up for renewal as the calendar changes over to a new year, how should an IT leader avoid the subtle sexiness and get the right hardware, software, and services? Check the following before pulling out the checkbook:

Fix the humans first

It's rare that technology alone can fix a fundamentally human problem. Usually these types of problems have a conceptually simple solution that's extremely difficult to implement, and mirror the "weight loss model" (losing weight is as "simple" as eating less and exercising more). When technology is called in to fix things like poor communication skills, rampant disorganization, or ineffective time and task management, you're essentially putting lipstick on a pig. It's more difficult to fix the human problems, especially when your traditional toolkit is technology-based, but the results are far more enduring rather than superficial.

Run what you brung

This grammatically incorrect statement originates with auto racing, and suggests that you drive the car you have today, rather than excusing away your performance based on planned upgrades, pipedreams, missing parts, and incomplete work. While new technologies are feature-rich and more appealing than existing technologies riddled with warts and bad memories, there is usually additional value yet to be exploited in existing systems. Dig up your old enhancement lists, or troll helpdesk tickets in the "to be done later" queue, and you'll likely find some low-hanging fruit that really will make you look like a star in the eyes of your users and your CFO when there's little acquisition cost for new functionality delivered from existing tools.

Trust your gut

Technology-driven products are littered with failed promises and half-baked products. While that's no excuse for refusing to evolve with the times and experiment with new technologies and processes, if something seems more promise than reality there's no harm in sitting out an upgrade cycle, or waiting a few months to see if the research organization's fancy graphs and magic quadrants actually pan out. If your vendor balks when you demand reasonable contractual guarantees, or if you suddenly discover you're customer #1 of what you thought was a stable product, trust your gut on whether to bail or accept the risk with eyes wide open. While getting to market first with a compelling product is admirable, putting critical systems in the hands of untested commodities is generally foolish.

Get professional help

If you find yourself pursuing the shiny new thing willingly or unwillingly, there's no harm in seeking outside expertise. Perhaps unfairly, external entities arrive with inbuilt credibility, and even if they make the exact same recommendation you would, it often carries more weight. While it may seem an unnecessary cost, getting a third party to vet your latest major IT expenditure is a drop in the bucket compared to a failed implementation or IT boondoggle. The key to external advisors is choosing one who does not have a vested interest in selling you implementation-related services, or appeasing research clients who pay big for supposedly unbiased "studies"; both factors can yield advice more in the interest of the advisor than the client.

For better or worse, IT avoids the most obvious sex-based advertising, but most technology vendors still use an appeal to base emotion to win us over to their products. That's obviously the goal of advertising and sales, but this subtlety can make the pitch all the more effective, in the worst case creating technology expenditures we don't need for problems that technology can't fix anyway. Recognizing and avoiding this tactic will keep your IT shop firmly grounded in the real world, rather than peddling vendor-provided pipedreams.