Unwrapping the numbers game

by Jono Bacon

One of the most intriguing aspects of the IT industry is the game of corporate pong that is played with those who typically have an Open or Closed Source bias. Every day we hear of company X deploying N number of Linux machines and then we hear of company Y deploying N number Windows machines. In the news we all aimlessly watch the corporates slag it out by playing the numbers game; a game that ultimately bears little other than PR spin and chatter on Slashdot.

Despite the influx of corporate pong played with great zest over and over in the headlines, there is a real and visible reason why this happens; people do buy into it. When the news hit that Microsoft had shifted something like 900,000 licenses to the NHS in the UK, IT aficionados gasped around the world. In the same vain, when reports of IBM spending a billion dollars on Open Source hit, the same gasps were heard, but by different people and for different reasons.

The problem with corporate pong is that it can be temping to be sucked into the figures on one side of the fence and not the other. From an Open Source advocacy perspective, it could be easy to hark on about X amount of Open Source desktops, Firefox browser growth and money saved in large deployments, but to then go on and criticise reports of growth in competing sides of the IT industry. It seems rather inconsistent to hype figures in one side of the fence and decry the other side for playing corporate pong. It should be stressed that I am not accusing Open Source advocates of doing this; this affects all sides.

Understanding the numbers

If there is one critical point I try encourage when writing about advocacy, it is that you should never believe the numbers game. The reason for this is that deployments are incredibly specific and unique beasts, and as such, virtually impossible to practically compare. A deployment of 1000 machines in one organisation is almost certainly going to be utterly different when compared to 1000 deployed machines in another organisation. These differences can occur in software choices, training, usability, objectives, costing factors and countless other variables. Sure, there may be similarities in a deployment, but these similarities probably end at the hardware architecture and chosen software. How that hardware and software is deployed and how it ultimately benefits the organisation is certainly different; differences sparked from different opinions, cultures and perspectives on building a successful IT infrastructure.

The 'overall benefit of the IT solution' is the key factor to understand and dissect. All of these statistics that form the bread and butter of corporate pong are the cruft that grows around the edge of a solution with one primary objective; to benefit the organisation in question. From a spectator perspective, if you bypass the business lunches, corporate jollys by bidding vendors, deployment board meetings and technology refresh tests, you need to ask the question as to whether the business has actually benefited from the IT solution deployed. Unfortunately, this factor rarely hits the headlines. You don't hear about the quality of the ride, you merely hear about the vehicle.

Sometimes the most value can be found in the lesser known case studies; and this is particularly prevalent in the Open Source sphere. As part of my work I have heard from countless businesses who have switched to Open Source and it has utterly transformed the way they do their business. In these cases, the previously dacaying IT solution they had been using has been replaced with something they actually have control over and a future with. In these cases the migration has not only improved their use of IT, but actually transformed their business. Of course, you rarely here of these cases because they don't fit into a good game of corporate pong - who wants to hear about a little business that has been transformed by a switch in their IT?

I do. I want to hear about this, because these are the real case studies that make IT interesting and valuable. Sure, the NHS migrations of the world hit the spot when discussing something around the water cooler, but the real meat and potatoes of the IT industry is simply never heard. Unfortunately, not conforming to corporate pong will typically relegate the IT solution that has transformed your business into a press-less husk that no-one will hear of. Then again, you are a business person, so what do you care?

The real story

The reality of this pointless numbers game is that there are a handful of organisations reporting these large migrations and an even smaller handful of software and hardware vendors pushing these organisations to go public about the migration with the hope of flogging more units. This culture of corporate pong allies with the long and successful journalistic tradition of reporting by headlines. As a journalist myself, I have come up against certain people in the press who have these kinds of objectives, and the large corporates are keen send in a band of PR gurus with their shining white teeth and clip-on Lego haircuts with a hope that the headlines can help to shift the perspective of their organisation in an industry where the word 'enterprise' is used to transform software into a language that managers can understand.

Anyone who has read my work before will know that I am a supporter and advocate of Open Source. Despite my Open Source preferences, I have always sought to advise my clients and write my articles and columns/blogs with a high degree of objective consideration. I grates me to see 'blind advocacy' and people suggesting certain IT solutions irrespective of whether it will benefit the users in question. Open Source is not always right, and I always try to get the right balance. With this objectivity, one thing I have seen however is the huge interest and benefits being achieved by Open Source in Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs). It is these organisations where IT makes more of a critical difference to the overall business model as the IT department cannot throw endless amounts of money and consultants at the problem. It is this area where the IT makes the real difference, and it is this area where corporate pong doesn't cut it.

The next time you see these huge migration reports, just bear in mind that the headlines may simply be an illusion in an industry where the real success stories are happening all around you.

What do you think? Truth or babble? Share your thoughts below...