Best Practices vs. Practical Reality

I’m struck by the huge gap that I see between acknowledged best practices and what companies are actually practicing. More than once, I have researched a product direction and decided not to pursue it because it seemed to me that the market must already be saturated. Later, when talking to customers, I’m stunned to find that hardly any of them have bought or are using the product in question. How can a market support a dozen companies when none of them seem to have any market share?

If you are a regular reader of eWeek, Infoworld, CIO Insight and others you might be lead to believe that every IT department is:

  • Heavily using virtualization products
  • Using comprehensive network and application monitoring tools
  • Diligently practicing strong security techniques
  • Maintaining audit logs and performing correlation analysis on them
  • Faithfully practicing ITIL techniques

Now, I’m not in Sales, but I’ve been to a lot of sales calls. I’ve probably talked to 100 companies over the last year. Of these, I can count on zero fingers the number of them that are practicing all of things mentioned above. On the other hand, the companies that are practicing none of the above is definitely non-zero!

In most cases, when I ask companies about the items I listed above, they sheepishly admit ot their failings. They know they should be doing these things. In some cases, they’ve even already paid for necessary software but have yet to deploy it. There is some tremendously successful shelfware in the industry.

What to make of all this?

  1. Don’t shy away from markets that seem to be crowded. There is still plenty of “whitespace” in the market where clever products and good companies can succeed.
  2. Don’t assume you can’t compete against software that’s been available for many years. I believe that there’s a lot of enterprise software that suffers from having been written 5 or 10 years ago using brittle programming techniques. A company with a strong engineering team can quickly develop a competing product using modern tools and techniques.
  3. Even good ideas and good products can take a good long time before they’re commonplace in IT. Certainly, most IT departments have good backup/restore infrastructure and good disaster recovery plans. It’s probably taken 10-20 years to make these pervasive practices.
  4. Read the journals, but talk to customers. The rags are way too preoccupied with what the top 5% of the IT innovators are doing. They are much less representative of the 1900 companies in the Fortune 2000.

There’s one other aspect of the problem that I’m still digesting. If there are a dozen competitors in a market, all doing the same thing and none of them are succeeding maybe the solution is to do something else. I’m reminded of a story I heard while taking a quality control course years ago. The story takes place in WWII and describes how an aircraft manufacturer decided on what parts of its planes needed extra armor. It had an engineer studying aircraft returning from combat. The company would look at bullet holes on the planes and add armor where there were no bullet holes. Why? Obviously, the planes that got shot in those places were the ones that didn’t survive the battle.

This is obvious once it’s explained but it requires appreciating what artists call “negative space”. If you don’t know what this is, look for the arrow in the FedEx logo.