Tales from the Consultant Trenches
Almost all communications technology decisions include a significant dose of biased opinions, both good and bad.
In a recent conversation with a few other consultants, it was pointed out that even independent consultants, like my fellow SCTC members, are not "unbiased." Consultants do have bias, and in fact, it is the biases developed from experience and knowledge that can make a consultant a valuable advisor. It is important, however, that the bias not be due to limited exposure to alternatives, believing in factual inaccuracies, or for personal reasons.
At the same time, the healthy embedded bias generally makes most consultants conservative. Frequently, the experience that is called upon is founded on successful projects and wishing to avoid any repeats of past problems. Thus, the tendency, when working with those vendors, is to follow the tried and true path that has delivered before.
Sometimes a consultant has a client that is willing to take more risks or attempt to get ahead of the trends rather than following them. In those cases, a consultant may have to de-emphasize a conservative rationale and allow a balanced risk/reward analysis to give stronger consideration to an intriguing new opportunity. We have had clients choose an early release of a new product or opt to install a new technology. Although it has not always worked out perfectly, the risks and subsequent challenges (usually overcome in a satisfactory manner) are often the bold move that puts the client ahead of the technology curve and their competition. In these situations, the consultant is sharing in the risk, because a difficult project will reflect on them, too.Story Time
Back when I first became a communications consultant in the mid-80s, I recall reading an article that was reporting on how the primary deciding factors changed when a consultant was involved. It stated that when a consultant was a key part of the decision process, cost was the most important factor. However, when a consultant was not involved, cost was only third on the list of reasons given for a decision.
At the time, I thought one reason for this might be that consultants tend to drive designs and the requirements into more comparable configurations, leaving cost as the larger variable. But for me, the big take away was to avoid using cost as an excuse (which is easier to defend to both the client and to losing vendors) and to seek the best solution for individual clients. I understood that instead of showing the client how much money they saved by using my services, the long-term value was in finding the right overall result.
However, outside of simply seeking the lowest costs, there are other times when a conservative decision maker or consultant allows a single issue to overwhelm a selection process. Why should market share be so critical that only the top two or three vendors are viable? Is it appropriate to avoid products sold by a foreign country manufacturer when the purchasing firm has a "buy American" philosophy? If a company does not have stellar financials, should they be bypassed? I have heard several consultants and a few clients state they won't buy anything from Avaya right now. Is that prudently cautionary, or short-sighted given the quality of the products and the still strong market presence? A few years ago, I heard of situations where ShoreTel was passed over because the company was facing a shareholder lawsuit. It makes me wonder if these types of reasons are excuses for a thorough evaluation or the kind of key insights that justify a bias. Hindsight suggests they are often unimportant to the long-term results.
The recent release of the Gartner UC magic quadrant rekindles the idea of possible over emphasis, but in a different way. Gartner will tell clients that the quadrant reports should not be the sole basis for a decision, but I have seen many evaluations that placed an imbalanced importance on the relative placement of the systems or services under consideration.
A couple of years ago, one of our clients went through a very thorough RFP, evaluation, and presentation process to select a specific solution. The rather large and multi-disciplined evaluation committee submitted a very well-supported justification for its recommendation, but the CIO stated that because the selected vendor was not in the Gartner magic quadrant, he would not allow the organization to move forward. Instead, he pushed the committee to consider (only) two other systems because they were "better known" and commonly selected by his peers in his industry. And they ultimately decided to follow this directive despite costs that were nearly double the initially selected proposal and solutions that were not as good a technical fit.
It may appear to be easy to spot good bias, based on experiences and insights, and bad bias, where a single issue can contribute to a shortsighted decision. The key is recognizing the difference while in the middle of the evaluation, and not waiting for hindsight to kick in.
"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.