community vs. the analysts

opsleuth commentWill there ever be a time when collaborative, organized social community content relegates the analyst research to just another set of input where the quality of community content is of equal or greater value than that provided by analysts? After all, analysts are not trained as analysts before they are hired. Most were IT professionals in IT organizations and vendors. However, putting on a leading analyst company badge transforms a person from someone with an opinion to someone who is paid to advise and guide IT executives on technology and business decisions. I do believe in the value of analyst information however I also believe there are many social community contributors who have equally valid or better credentials to provide similar or better guidance or advice.

So what is it going to take for these two information sources to be treated equally?  The main problem is social community content is in many locations with many contributors. Boiling down social data can be a mammoth effort resulting in no definitive answer.  Analyst companies typically take a position on any specific subject with limited alternative views. So even though the community continues to influence IT decisions, most executives will still take direction from the paid analyst services and it is analyst company input and research that will be referenced to create vendor shortlists, justify investments and used to support project proposals/decisions.

The following table compares social community and analyst content, influence and contribution.

Content  (comments, white papers etc) is where most of the differentiation occurs. Social content can vary wildly (structure, format, quality, terminology) which can make the job of finding specific answers/statements on subjects difficult. Analyst content typically conforms to a standard format making information easier to find (also helped by a lot less content).

Content Update Frequency (how often new content is released). Social content is released and updated and commented on every second of every day and takes many forms blogs, tweets, community site comments etc. Analyst content is released in chunks (~15-30 papers per year per analyst) and if you subscribe to their services you may also get access to the analyst through scheduled phone calls or email. As change in the IT industry occurs at an increasingly alarming rate the social community will respond immediately whereas the only way to get an immediate view from an analyst will require a phone call or email (or hope they keep their blog up-to-date).

Content Output Types (content deliver methods). Social content is delivered in every form possible (tweets, blogs, mail, video etc) while analyst content has historically been in three forms (blogs, research documents and presentations).  However a change is happening in the analyst community with some analysts having their own blogs and starting to participate in social site conversations. Giving away any detail, no matter how abstract, is a problem for analyst firms who associate every word uttered by their analysts with a costed value. It’s a balance of giving away ‘just enough’ to entice readers and followers to their pay to play services.

Content Inputs (feedback, comments)  Social content is, err social. Blog entries, tweets etc all allow/promote feedback and general comments. A blog entry may create a conversation stream where the content is augmented or create a debate spawning alternative views and opinions. This type of real-time content is very healthy as it allows the reader to make their own assumptions based on how information is described, promoted, defended or dismissed.  This social interaction is rarely embraced by analyst firms. Analyst content is not up for debate – it is their position and if you dare have another one – you are wrong.  I always smile when I hear someone say “I am going to get the analyst to change their mind”.  Analyst companies may ask for input to aid their research, however they do not seek alternative views for their output.

Bias (prejudice in favor of something which maybe considered unfair). Social content bias can be found everywhere and it’s usually blindingly obvious. Arguably everyone has a view (bias) and if a social site or individual has similar views and beliefs to yours then you are more likely to follow them, read their blogs, view their videos and buy their books. Following someone who you rarely agree with becomes too frustrating and only the young have the time (and energy) to continally argue in public forums.  There is an IT myth: Analysts don’t have bias.  They do because analysts are human. The bias doesn’t have to be towards a vendor or product but towards a belief system or a hidden agenda or goal. Understanding an analysts ‘preference’ may not be easy to find as it will be hidden beneath a thick layer of impartiality.

Cost. Social content is free. Analyst content isn’t.

Decision to Participate (who chooses IT market information sources). Anyone can choose to be in a social community only companies choose to use analyst services.

Decision strength (the contents influence and ‘weight’). Social content can be taken into consideration when making an IT decision but it is rarely used to justify an investment or make a change. Social content is used to influence and build awareness. Analyst content is often used to prove a point, show a trend, justify an investment or identify IT purchase options.

Content Ownership and References (identifying content authors, contributors and references). Social content can be tracked to the author, content providers etc. Few would expect to build credibility by including “a big New York bank told me…” to support their point.  The social community want names and addresses and if you cannot provide them then your comments are dismissed.  The analyst community often use generic, non-specific references to give their research and assumptions credibility and weight. Whether the reference is real or not is something protected by ‘client confidentiality’  - so we are left to take their word for it.

Followers/Subscribers.  Social communities can have many thousands of readers and contributors spread across hundreds of community sites. There are only a few analyst companies that can claim 1000′s of subscribers.

Content Update Awareness. The speed new information is delivered drives how often followers/subscribers visit the community sites. Leading social sites are visited very frequently, daily in most cases with update alerts delivered through social messaging. Social sites are not standalone entities and can reference other sites creating a social content web.  Analyst content updates are far less frequent resulting in subscribers visiting the site only when an email alert is sent or when a project or decision requires analyst content.

Confidentiality. IT organizations seeking generic, non-specific information can find usually find something in community sites. The problem is that many company IT challenges are confidential and require a high-degree of confidentiality. When this is the case the social environment is hardly the place to air your company’s business problems. Analyst companies protect their client confidentiality allowing highly-confidential issues to be discussed and addressed.

So what does all this mean?

Basically there is far more content in social communities, updated in real-time, used on a very frequent basis, anyone can participate and it’s free. Analyst content is delivered far slower, used when needed and it’s high cost.  Social content is used as reference with little privacy resulting in it being used as information providing peripheral advice and guidance that influences IT decisions. Analyst content and interaction is protected with client confidentiality agreements and is used to justify and make decisions.

For social communities to start having an impact on business analyst services requires a number of changes. Social sites will need to focus more, filter their content better and provide ways to protect privacy.  This is not what most were designed to do and I’d argue it would take the edge off the value they provide.   So, the time has not yet arrived where analyst firms are under threat from the social community – there is simply too much diverse content and no confidentiality. Companies want guidance, advice and answers to specific questions. They do not  have the time to read and filter a mountain of conflicting information. However, social sites such as servicesphere.com have already attracted a very large and loyal following due to the quality of the content, the ways the information is delivered (and made consumable), the credibility of key contributors and the relevance of the material.

Analyst firms are aware of the content tsunami on the horizon that will start to erode their core research values. Analysts are already starting to be seen outside the strict confines of their employers websites providing opinions without charging for them. This will continue to be a challenge as they try to balance what to give away and what not to.  The art form appears to be saying just enough to create interest and then direct followers and readers to the costed content.

Another change that may occur soon is that companies will see the need to search, filter and analyze social content making it useable to aid business decisions.  Today, companies have people focused on PR (Public Relations) and AR (Analyst Relations). Maybe to embrace and leverage the wealth of content in the social community will require companies to also invest in SR (Social Relations).

 

5 Thoughts on “community vs. the analysts

  1. Great job comparing the two approaches. I think you just left out an important element in your wrap-up. Not all technology domains are the same. Emerging markets versus mature markets have very different relationships with analysts. In mature markets, analysts have a lot of value to provide in elucidating complicated markets. In emerging markets (like DevOps or Big Data), it is much harder for analysts to provide as much value. Often there is a single analyst partially focusing on the space, and the space is moving too fast to be mastered by any one analyst. So, in that case, social communities and thought leaders are much more valuable. DevOps is a good case point where you can find most of the useful data on the subject for free, and the subject still changes at a rapid clip.

    • opsleuth on December 14, 2012 at 5:27 am said:

      You are right, emerging markets appear far more difficult for analysts to provide any consistent or even useful information. However, DevOps is a good example of an emerging market where practitioners, thought leaders, and vendors are seen as information contributors but analysts are still contacted when a company wants a definitive understanding or guidance on DevOps players, adoption challenges and best practices as it pertains to their specific requirements. The one thing that should be taken into consideration is that analyst companies need to invest resources and make money from any IT subject so an emerging market needs to a certain size before analysts will see it as something they can profit from.

  2. This is a very interesting review. I would add another element and propose a way to enhance the effectiveness of the social community.

    ACCOUNTABILITY – what happens if the IT professional fails to meet her goals based on the advice provided?

    If the analyst provides advice to a client, and the project does not meet the client’s expectations, there may be very limited direct consequence to the analyst or the analyst firm. It is certainly possible that the client may cancel their contract with the analyst, but on balance I think this would occur very rarely. And if there were any consequences, these would be invisible to the community, and no one would learn from them.

    If, on the other hand, a social recommendation fails, the community can be made aware of this as there is the possibility of instant and open feedback. To further improve upon this, we can have the community rate the advice of the social contributor, which will provide for real-time assessment of the best sources of information for key topics.

    • opsleuth on December 14, 2012 at 7:17 pm said:

      Great points about accountability. Written analyst research is fairly generic and cannot be held to the same scrutiny as verbal communication. Of course any social or analyst opinion/research provided should be used as a guidance – not a directive. That’s why IT organizations should hire the best people and listen to them. It would be alarming if a business decision is taken based on a 30 minute call with an analyst. If someone does this then the ramifications are unlikely to be owned by the analyst company and totally the responsibility of the internal organization. Taking input from the social community allows for a lot more inputs and opinions and in many cases directly from people who are practitioners and able to provide real experience and advice. Basically, if you want to learn how to fly a plane I’d recommend learning from a pilot and not from someone who has spoken to one.

  3. My question is, Robert – How do we judge recommendations? That is the hard part. First off, most payoffs for IT decisions takes months to be borne out. Second, how much do we consider the inability of the IT client to execute? I think many IT projects fail because of management or technical incompetence, not because of the tool or strategy. That is why I am such a believer in the community. Practitioners with opinions need to implement those opinions. You can’t exactly be a proponent of view that has failed on your team – and be believed.

    So, maybe the method is more carrot (elevate the good, successful ones) than the stick (punish the ones who give wrong advice).

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