Why don't we refer to Wal-Mart as "the world's leading consumer of time-sheets"? I mean, it's accurate, isn't it?
Or how about McDonald's—why don't we call them "the world's leading fast-food provider of drinking straws"? After all, it's the truth, isn't it?
Yet Hewlett-Packard is known, far and wide, as "the world's leading manufacturer of PCs," which is about as relevant as in describing HP as are the McDonald's and Wal-Mart descriptors above. Why can't HP escape that one-dimensional portrayal?
Then there's Cisco, "the networking giant"—again, it's not inaccurate, but does that really capture who and what Cisco is? Does it convey the wide spectrum of customer value and innovation that Cisco offers? Is the Cisco story really limited to routers, hubs, and switches?
And we also have Oracle, referred to with mind-numbing consistency in the media as "the database giant." At SAP's recent Sapphire event, which surely draws a very Oracle-aware crowd, a few different people (not all SAP employees, by the way) went to great lengths to try to convince me that Oracle is a database company because, they said, it gets 80% of its revenue and all of its profits from databases. They weren't interested in looking at Oracle's recent financial statements to see if the facts bore out their contentions—they had their story and they were sticking with it because it was convenient, comfortable, and connected vaguely to something resembling the truth.
But anyway, does all this really matter? Is it of any consequence if people's perceptions of major IT companies don't align with reality? Does anybody actually give a hoot if the general media and increasing percentages of the so-called business media don't know and don't care what, in fact, these companies are all about? Will all your mission-critical systems come to a disastrous halt if much of the world in general thinks that HP is all about PCs and Oracle is all about databases and Cisco is all about networks?
I think these issues matter—and matter greatly—for at least these three reasons:
1) These accurate-but-misleading crutches obscure the vitality and innovation and dynamic nature of not just those three leading companies but also of the entire IT industry. It took IBM years to shake off "the mainframe company" and in the later years of that overhaul, that backward-looking reputation most assuredly did not help IBM convince customers and investors that it was a fast, aggressive, and forward-looking innovator.
We in this business sometimes grouse about whether the thrill is gone from the tech industry, and whether it's an industry in decline, and whether it might be time to get into biophysics or nanotech or life sciences or, God help me, finance. Gee: do you think there might be some connection between that occasional ennui and the fact that three of the biggest and best-known IT companies in the world—three global powerhouses!—are best known for grinding out products (PCs, networks, and databases) that are almost as old as the overall industry itself?
2) The IT business is clearly no longer the exclusive province of the CIO and a select few insiders who know all these companies and many others inside and out. Whether we like it or not, IT-buying decisions are increasingly influenced by financial people, business people, corporate wonks and others—if their opinions and perceptions of those companies are shaped by prevailing though inaccurate snapshots, is it going to make the CIO's job any easier?
3) Hell's bells, HP is the world's largest IT company with a vast and impressive array of products and services—and the best we can say about it is that it makes and sells more $800 commodity thingies than anybody else? No talk of innovation, transformation, networks, automation, global services, mobility and other key new areas for HP? Hello, Mark Hurd: what's the greatest and biggest-impact thing your company's got going for it? And since it sure as heck ain't PCs, why aren't you telling the world what that great thing is?
John Chambers is one of the most highly acclaimed CEOs in the world, and on top of that Jack Bauer used his products for several years—and Cisco settles for being "the networking giant"? No doubt, Flipcams and TelePresence and Unified Computing Systems all use networks—these days, what doesn't?—but they also all use wiring closets and I sure as heck don't think Cisco wants to be known as the Wiring Closet (or WC for short?) company.
Oracle has probably attacked this issue with more vigor than HP or Cisco via Larry Ellison's new and unwavering positioning of Oracle + Sun as a systems company. It's not exactly scintillating, but with Ellison's vision and commitment wrapped around it, it sure is compelling for CIOs. Ever since Ellison first broached the subject in mid-December of optimized and integrated hardware and software systems offering greater performance and less trouble, that theme has been picked up by a variety of other leading IT companies.
To not only HP, Cisco, and Oracle, but also to IBM and SAP and every other vital and committed IT vendor in the market: your customers are changing and evolving rapidly, whether in an attempt to survive or out of desire to blast ahead of stodgy competitors. They are eagerly seeking to become what their customers want and need them to be, instead of remaining stuck in a series of Groundhog Days where nothing ever changes except the increasingly smaller likelihood that they'll survive for two more years.
And those customers don't want to deal with the PC giant or the database giant or the network giant or the storage giant or the services giant or the printer giant or the mousepad giant—they want to deal with the Innovation Giant, they want to deal with the Transformation Giant, they want to deal with the Growth Giant, they want to deal with the Insight + Intelligence Giant and the Next-Practices Giant and the Killer-Performance Giant.
To complete the work they need to do, those customers need the best the IT industry can deliver in ideas and vision as well as in products and services. But in too many cases, what we're offering those customers is last year's leftover frozen meatloaf with mushy broccoli.
Our customers deserve better than that. And very shortly they'll demand better than that.
And when that time comes, we had each better be the giant they want us to be, instead of just the big thing we used to be.
Bob Evans is senior VP and director of
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