Social Media Ignorance in the IT Analyst Industry

Social media, the newest channel of communication across the Internet, is increasingly being used to influence, but also to deliver advice and research. I wrote about this revolution last year (See: “The Social Media Revolution in Industry Analyst Community”), reporting on the transformation that is underway and the work of our firm along with Altimeter Group and dozens of other active industry analysts. While some industry analysts are aggressively engaged in social media, using Twitter and producing blogs, there are many more who apparently do not see any value in the time and energy it takes to engage these new channels. Although the larger IT analyst firms – GartnerForrester, and IDC – have provided channels for their analysts to blog, only  a small percentage of analysts at these firms actually use them. It is useful that IDCForrester, and Gartner have provided a library of their analysts on Twitter that includes their handles, as a review shows that their analysts appear to have viewed the channel as a novelty, giving it a shot in 2009 but doing little since. At least the Forrester listing groups its analysts into research areas; other firms apparently expect you to figure out the focus of their analysts on your own. These are good first steps, but they still don’t make it easy for those who wish to follow them on these channels; they still leave it to you, the reader, to make sense of the different social media identities of their analysts, to figure a Twitter handle from the blog post and visa versa.

In 2010 I attended dozens of industry analyst events at which technology suppliers provided updated business and technology information. It quickly become clear to me that the general population of IT analysts did not understand the new order that social media would bring; most analysts dismissed the new channels as not relevant to their coverage. Since then, the number of business and IT buyers who use Twitter to listen and to engage in dialogue and who read blogs for opinions and recommendations has grown significantly. Just as importantly, these channels provide a new level of transparency to assess the competency of industry analysts. In much the same way that Yelp and Facebook have become important for consumers, the use of LinkedIn has become influential for business, as have dozens of new channels. Yet the majority of industry analysts are still standing behind their organizations’ four walls and not taking any steps forward.

I have heard some say, “Why should I do it if I am not compensated for it?” But the importance of social media for their reputations is not to be ignored, as the new empires of influence that are Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on should not be dismissed. After all, shouldn’t understanding the role of technology in changing an industry be more obvious to the industry analysts covering that technology? Unfortunately, the cobblers’ children – or cobblers’ ignorance – is increasingly self-evident.

As though this weren’t enough, the mishandling of the social media channel is not the only issue plaguing industry analysts. A large majority also find themselves locked into a static publishing model in which analysts have only a limited number of opportunities to voice their analysis of trends and technology suppliers. This has led many analysts to attend industry events yet not even open their laptops to take notes, much less actually engage in analysis. Many of us refer to them as the “doodlers” or “sleepers” because in most cases they do not engage in dialogue with presenters from technology vendors let alone take notes on those who are trying to impress them. Are these passive analysts bad for the industry? Well, I would say “yes,” but as is the case in any industry, there are laggards and there are leaders. In 2010 the laggards  still dominated the IT analyst industry.

Now I have many friends at the peer IT analyst firms – Andy Bitterer from Gartner and Boris Evelson at Forrester are but two – who are colleagues and even friends on Facebook, and who buck the trend at their firms and are quite vocal on social media channels. They go beyond what they are compensated for or what is expected of them because they realize that the new social media can build a personal brand and a reputation. If you are passionate about the topic and category, if you are responsible for covering it, and if it is your career, then spending the extra time and energy to engage the industry through social media is not just important but essential. Using these channels also allows analysts to extend themselves to cover a broader number of technology categories, transcending traditional turf Limits. This ability to broaden one’s scope has helped create at least two new research firms, the Altimeter Group and Constellation Research. These companies, like our firm, use the Internet as a collaborative medium for research and analysis. They also use it to expand the scope of their coverage to include not just IT but also the many business aspects of technology and the challenges and needs of buyers.

Besides the analysts themselves, I also have noticed that many of those in analyst relations (AR) jobs do not understand that social media represent an increasingly significant channel of influence for those they are to monitor and engage. Business and IT buyers typically search the Internet using keywords to find their desired technology topic or material written about the technology vendors and categories. This “Google effect” has spread to Bing and other search channels and helps buyers to quickly acquire specific information that they use for a variety of strategy and planning needs. Some in AR appear to believe that users and potential clients will see more value in the research and analysis of a trusted firm that does not provide material freely on the Internet to educate the market. But I believe it won’t be long until that trusted status turns into an isolated status. When that happens, the big firms that have failed to fully engage social media will experience a spending backlash. Then they will learn, perhaps too late, that they will have to get their analysts to embrace the medium not just as a marketing tool but also as a required presence on their topics.

Many in AR seem to believe that social media are distractions to the analysts. The reality is that this is where the next generation of influencers is emerging, and that if they do not engage here they will have a negative impact on the future of their companies. It is true that going forward they may have more to follow and to stay on top of, but there also are also plenty of social media analytic tools that will help them synthesize the analysts and influencers on the Internet.

I have been asked many times, “Does Ventana Research tweet, blog or engage in social media?” I have to wonder how a professional today can ask that question. Can it really be that these individuals do not search the Internet, visit our home page, Google our firm name and blogs or look at our email trailer, which provides a quick away to discover all of our activities for the last two-plus years? To be sure, just looking at volumes of tweets and blogs is not a sign of the value a firm’s research provides – the quality of what is generated is much more important. Nonetheless, what the AR community must understand – indeed, what they ought to demand – is that analysts use social media not just to build their personal reputations and to stay relevant in the business but also to engage intellectually in a multi-channel dialogue that raises issues as it hones the sharpness of the analysts themselves. What looks like banter on Twitter is actually sharpening the game and raising the value of analysts.

Frankly, this is long overdue, coming as it does after a decade of declining relevance of analysts. Using Twitter to offer your quick thoughts and analysis, providing referenced research, and interacting with other analysts is just part of being relevant and engaged in your responsibility to the industry and to your clients.

The next time you see an industry analyst with Tweetdeck and a document open writing a blog and perhaps also a research note, realize these analysts are more engaged than those who do not have their computers open or who are not even keeping notes. I personally use my tweets as my documented interactions and to ensure that the stimulated analysis from my brain is made available to the reader. I do realize that industry analyst firms need to retain a certain level of value in access to analysts and to the premium content that comes from a membership. Our firm does the same. But firms should allocate – even mandate that – a percentage of their analysts’ time be devoted to engaging in the social media to ensure that the analyst is seen as both knowledgeable and relevant. Potential customers who are looking to understand the value of what they are buying access to should be able to see this level of depth in the a firm’s analysts; if they can’t, they should question whether they are accessing experience or just contributing to the profit margins of analyst firms. It is a well-known that large analyst firms hire junior analysts with little real-world experience on a topic and then in 90 days have them advise buyers on critical technology decisions. I personally witnessed this at META Group back in the ‘90s, which is why I left; it was clear that the advice and research was not as important as the financial pressures to increase profitability.

I am no social media guru but I have embraced this new channel; I believe doing so has raised the visibility and business value of our firm. For that I am thankful. Without it, we would be left to compete with the giants using a much smaller marketing budget, and that would be a losing battle. The challenge now is for other analyst firms to get their acts together and to start embracing the future. After all, it will only get more complicated as the days pass. The new social media have broken down the high walls that used to surround analyst firms, creating a space in which everyone can be more open and engaged. In this new world, the relevance of analysts will be measured by their ability to assess and to state their views based on experience and research – and, yes, measured by their opinion as well.

Let me know your thoughts or come and collaborate with me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.


Mark Smith – CEO & EVP Research

SumTotal Provides Clarity in the New Year

The new year started off with a bang in the human capital management software market as SumTotal Systems acquired GeoLearning, a leading learning management system (LMS) software vendor.

If you think this is just another acquisition, think again. I see GeoLearning as a strategic acquisition and a clearly offensive move on SumTotal’s part. Strategic, because vendors are looking to consolidate well-proven LMS and related talent management applications into a single comprehensive suite. And offensive, as GeoLearning had one of the few stand-alone LMSs, which is required technology to provide a complete talent management suite in the market. SumTotal’s competitor Taleo knew this when it acquired in 2010 to deepen its capabilities. And we now have a new playing field with Plateau and Saba, both of whom have been expanding their LMS-centered application suites. This move is also offensive, as GeoLearning was partnering with SuccessFactors, which has no depth in this application area. This capability has become an enterprise-wide need as every organization has to virtualize learning and training processes and integrate them with talent management processes.

If you are not familiar with GeoLearning, the company has been in business for 15 years, mostly in North America. Its GeoMaestro LMS is provided in software as a service (SaaS) as a cloud computing-based approach. GeoLearning has a couple of hundred employees—who will bolster SumTotal’s 600 or so employees—and more than 500 customers. These customers, including brand names such as Adecco, American Express, Armstrong, Black & Decker, Cabela’s, Dell, Edward Jones, FedEx Ground, Google, Kaiser Permamente, Simmons, Time Warner and Wells Fargo, tell part of the story behind this company. In recent years many of its competitors have begun to add additional applications, including performance, social collaboration and analytics to complement their LMS applications.

This acquisition is a smart move. SumTotal Systems not only acquires market share with GeoLearning in not just the midsize market but also in the large enterprise. According to SumTotal, thanks to this acquisition, it will have more than 2,300 customers and more than 39 million users. I am not sure how large the market growth is for LMS itself but the complementary applications opportunity is quite significant; the correlation and need to integrate with analytics, performance and social-based business collaboration is quite large. GeoLearning had been expanding these areas and can provide both experience and applications in a field that SumTotal has been working at for many years but not as successfully as its prior acquisition, Softscape. I actually think the business collaboration applications. which GeoLearning calls enterprise social solutions, are part of the secret sauce vendors and users alike need to capitalize on this newly expanding opportunity. SumTotal’s competitor Saba knows this and has been expanding further itself as I assessed recently.

SumTotal Systems is coming off its own reincarnation with the 2010 acquisition of Softscape. Spearheaded by Vista Equity Partners, the acquisition brought together a portfolio of applications from HRMS to talent management applications. Softscape, as I assessed, had a robust platform and applications portfolio but did not have the working capital it needed to expand its operations; that now is addressed in the new company. I witnessed probably the fastest transformation of an acquisition ever as SumTotal transitioned Softscape within weeks after closing and had a single presence at the annual HR Technology event that I reviewed. More importantly, the unified operations team has made it easier for customers to interact with one organization and for the company to communicate its milestones. SumTotal’s unified management team blends management from the organizations and its owner Vista Equity, and it appears already to be operating efficiently.

The challenge now for SumTotal Systems is to keep the existing silos of customers satisfied in the LMS and talent management areas as they have at least three categories of technologies that competed previously in the market. SumTotal apparently hopes to emulate Oracle with its acquisition of so many application companies. It is hard to dispute the profitability of Oracle and the synergies of customers, but I hope SumTotal will not have the same challenges as it evolves its applications that Oracle has had; the company is just starting to show that value in Oracle Fusion for Human Capital Management, which I assessed recently.  On the opposite side is Plateau, which believes that a single integrated platform and suite of applications for talent management is the best approach. I have reviewed Plateau’s offerings, and they look to be formidable. Now other vendors looking for LMS applications only have a few vendors left to partner with or acquire. One of those is Outstart, which will be in the eye of many who want to get into this market.

Now SumTotal Systems needs to fuel its voice in the market. That will require it to tell its new story and to ensure that the depth of its product organization and technologies is presented and validated. I also believe that one of the larger growth and transformational technologies will be in mobile applications. The company has yet to roll out this technology, which currently is he Achilles’ heel of the entire talent management category. Like its competitors, SumTotal does not yet support the Apple iPad and iPhone, Android and other technologies that have transformed the personal side of workforces in the last two years so that they support employee interactions, let alone management. I also believe that SumTotal could look at building a unified workforce analytics and planning environment that could interoperate across applications more easily, and it might look at further acquisitions of vendors like Aquire, eThority and Human Concepts. This is what SuccessFactors is betting on with a series of acquisitions in 2010, but it has yet to articulate clearly why it should be the independent keeper of workforce analytics for an organization.

I like SumTotal’s aggressiveness. Buyers in HR need to start unifying their software efforts because the inefficiencies of having several suppliers have started to increase costs and resources, as well as the time required to meet operational and finance needs for human capital management. Today’s cloud computing silos must come to an end. The supplier who can establish and sell the business case not just to HR but also to the CFO will win the larger portion of business in the coming years. SumTotal’s acquisition of GeoLearning shows it clearly sees this.

Let me know your thoughts or come and collaborate with me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.


Mark Smith – CEO & EVP Research