Hazards of technology prophecy: Failures of imagination, failures of nerve

Bruce Jenkins, Ora Research

In his classic essay collection Profiles of the Future, Arthur C. Clarke identified two kinds of what he termed “hazards of prophecy”: failures of imagination, and failures of nerve. Today, nearly a fifth of the way into the twenty-first century, it’s striking how many engineering organizations—and how many technology analyst firms seeking to advise them—seem to suffer from both maladies. Far too many have failed to escape from, and evolve beyond, business models and modes of thinking created to serve the needs and opportunities of the 1970s, or even before.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Systems 2020 is one of many carrot-and-stick initiatives launched by various stakeholders to coax manufacturers out of practices and habits rooted in, essentially, 1950s-era product architectures and their engineering requirements. Today’s and tomorrow’s smart, connected, self-aware and situationally aware products, managed by ultra-sophisticated onboard mechatronic systems of systems, differ from earlier-generation mechanical devices governed by primitive electromechanical (if that) control systems almost as much as relativity and quantum mechanics departed from the classical physics of Newton and Maxwell.

So too the commentariat

In like manner, technology analyst firms today divide sharply in two: those that exercise engineering-grade care to anchor their practice in the bedrock of sustained, diligent, discerning research into engineers’ firsthand experiences with the technologies under investigation, versus the many content to be little more than elaborate echo chambers for technology vendors’ marketing communications.

It would be comic, if it wasn’t sad, watching the second group position its work product as research, analysis, “strategy” or even “thought leadership.” When reality is, given their scant interaction with users, such firms essentially publish reports that parrot back to their vendor clients what they just heard the vendors tell them.

That’s not research, much less analysis. It’s not even journalism.

Small wonder it takes an army of salespeople to badger, beat and drive clients into that hall of mirrors and house of cards. Julia Child’s memorable word for purveyors of such flimflam was the “flimsies.”

Jeremiah was a bullfrog

In the ’70s and early ‘80s, the major analyst-firm names served as weights that the IT director fastened to his stick, to give it added clout for beating vendors and internal adversaries alike into submission during big IT procurements. Useful and valuable at the time, that model aligned with the hard-knuckled realities of the glass-house era.

But that was four decades—and five technology generations—ago. Those days are over.

Yet so many analyst firms cling to business models forged in those times long past. Out of organizational inertia, blindness, denial? From fear of change, and terror of the new, untried and unknown? Above all, it’s because of the roadblocks that established leaders in any industry run into when disruptive innovation hits their customers—often changing what those customers need and want beyond any capacity of their existing suppliers to transform their own businesses to meet those new, radically different needs.

Analyst zombie apocalypse

The situation almost calls to mind bands of revenants roving Carpathian peaks and valleys, following trails marked out ages ago, but no longer retaining even vestigial memory or comprehension of who, what, when, where or why they are. And with no detectable design or intent beyond sustenance and survival. (That they feed on the brains of their victims…!)

The irony of such firms purporting to advise on future-facing vision, strategy, direction and change management is, not unpredictably, lost on them.

Compact with the devil

Engineering organizations have a sharp eye and ear for detecting “flimsies” among technology advisory firms, and quietly step away from them—leaving such firms dependent on technology vendors for most of their revenue. This conflicted business model inevitably compromises, and eventually corrupts, the firm’s content and coverage, as the prime directive governing research deliverables becomes the imperative to avoid taking any position that could risk offending or annoying any current or potential client. That dynamic degrades, and finally destroys, the firm’s ability to deliver objective, disinterested, critical-when-called-for research and advisory value.

New research model: Democratized, high-value, transparent, evidence-based, fit-for-purpose

The flimsies are not just a vexatious, if unintentionally comic, industry irritant. They are actively destructive of the interests of every serious actor in the arena. Clients are robbed of scarce, precious resources, for thin return. Vendors, on top of pressure to squander their finite research budgets, are annoyed with requests for information whose fulfillment they know won’t repay the trouble. Vendors know too the feel of the always denied, but not always plausibly so, threat of retribution for failure to sign up or renew. And industry analysts who play it straight, laboring to deliver sound, responsibly grounded, evidence-based research, nonetheless suffer by association with the outnumbering flimsies.

The good news is that those days are, at long last, drawing to a close. Today’s era of information freedom opened up by the Internet has blown to bits every old business model built around “experts” of whatever stripe acting as high priests of their specialized information and knowledge, controlling and hoarding it, and charging premium prices for access. And the Internet has made possible global communities of interest of all kinds, creating unprecedented possibilities for fast, easy, powerful, free or very low-cost collaborative working and sharing of knowledge, capabilities and resources.

Our first effort to leverage this fortunate situation in service to the engineering community is a Democratized Multiclient Study™ of Simulation App Markets & Opportunities. We hope this new model for conducting and delivering technology industry research can help to flare off some of the swamp gases emanating from those mortified and decomposing portions of today’s analyst industry practice, and bring its beneficiaries a welcome gust of fresh air.

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