IT trends: Don’t get distracted by the spaniel

For better or for worse, we are the owners of a mad Welsh Springer spaniel called Charlie. Buried in there somewhere is a set of gun dog genes reflecting the fact that breeds such as this were designed to sniff out and retrieve game that had been shot down by their owners. All a bit dubious in terms of history, and quite irrelevant in the context of a family pet like ours, apart from the upshot that Welsh Springers are inherently working dogs and need a lot of walking and a regular opportunity to exercise their well developed sense of smell.

The best places to walk a spaniel are where there’s lots of open space and a lot of interesting tracks to sniff out and follow; the forest close to where we live, for example, is ideal. When you go walking in places such as this, it can be quite entertaining to watch Charlie trotting around you with his nose less than an inch in from the ground. When he picks up a scent, it’s just like he’s on a mission, and all of his actions become very intense and purposeful. Every now and again, though, he’ll pick up another scent that he finds more interesting, and there’ll be a sudden change of direction as he follows that instead.

As you are walking, the net effect of all this is basically Charlie rushing around you, sometimes off to the left, then cutting across your path to your right, and so on, but generally moving along the route at the same overall pace as you. I’ve never tried to measure it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if on a 5 mile walk, the actual distance covered by Charlie as he constantly and passionately pursues his various ‘missions’ wasn’t 20 miles or more.

So what’s all this got to do with IT progress and trends?

Well it occurred to me the other day when I was out walking Charlie that we see a lot of similar behaviour in the IT industry. Vendors and pundits tend to latch onto tracks or missions that they pursue intensely and purposefully for a while, almost as if the entire future of the industry and their customers depended on it. Then they come across something more interesting and they’re off in a different direction pursuing a different mission.

A lot of vendors in the software space, for example, latched onto business service management (BSM) as the mission a few years ago, and off they went declaring the need to focus not on IT per se, but on the services delivered by the IT organisation to the business. Then there was a switch in emphasis, and the mission became centred around service oriented architecture (SOA) as a way of achieving ‘IT Business Alignment’. Indeed some declared SOA to represent a ‘paradigm shift’ in terms of the way we think about IT, what it’s for, and how to do it. Now the chasing of the SOA ideal has been dropped and there’s a whole new mission around cloud computing, on the premise that we now have another ‘paradigm shift’ which is going to redefine the way we think about IT delivery yet again by separating the ‘what’ of service delivery from the ‘how’.

This kind of behaviour is all very Charlie like, and the illusion of purpose and progress is reinforced because so many industry analysts, journalists and pundits make a living out of tracking the metaphorical spaniel, and only pay scant attention to the actual progress of the walk.

Meanwhile, just like the person in the dog walking analogy, those in mainstream IT organisations are making steady progress along their route. Some, on occasions, have tried to follow the spaniel, and ended up knee deep in mud or tangled up in thorn bushes; the companies that tried to implement strategic SOA initiatives to ‘transform’ the way they work spring to mind here. Most, however, recognise the grand industry ‘imperatives’ as the spaniel missions they are, and stay focused on making steady progress along a more measured and sensible path.

In the IT industry ‘missions’ I have referred to above, for example, there is a common theme around service centricity, the basic idea being to regard IT as the means to an end rather than an end in itself. Implicit in this is the notion that there can often be many different ways of delivering the same capability or service to business users, with a different set of pros and cons associated with each. The trick is therefore to focus on services and service quality delivered as the pivot point for IT investment prioritisation and decision making.

This idea of service centricity has been gradually increasing in momentum among mainstream IT organisations as a natural part of evolving the role of IT within the business. Along the way, a lot of the spirit and principles that underpin some of the spaniel missions like BSM, SOA and cloud computing have been embraced. But, and here’s the important difference, if you are running an IT shop in the real world, while you obviously want to take new and enhanced ideas on board, you need to do so selectively and in the context of the complex existing environment you are working in, bearing in mind everything else that’s going on in terms of priorities, commitments, constraints and so on. To put it another way, IT leaders and others involved in IT delivery clearly want and need to exploit industry developments, but cannot afford the kind of single track obsessive behaviour that is so often advocated by many in the supplier and analyst community.

Thankfully, in most cases, the spaniel mission approach within the industry is recognised for what it is – interesting to watch, but distracting and potentially dangerous to follow. In line with this, people are also wising up to the tricks and spin often employed to create the impression of momentum around spaniel missions by re-classifying historical activity. I have had, for example, classic Citrix deployments with exactly the same architecture put to me over the years as evidence of thin client computing, server-based computing, desktop virtualisation and, most recently, desktop cloud computing. It’s surprising how often you find a lot of old familiar stuff underneath when you scratch the surface of customer stories put forward to substantiate the latest ‘developments’ and ‘imperatives’.

Those of you familiar with the work of Freeform Dynamics will know that unlike most other analyst firms, we track the walk and advise the walker, and don’t confuse the activity of the spaniel rushing around it with meaningful progress.

Not sure if this analogy works for you, but the general principle of evaluating the relevance of industry propositions to your own objectives and activity is the key message here. It’s your progress that matters, not trying to keep up with every supposed trend that emerges at industry level.

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Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.