On the Stackholm Syndrome – And in Defense of Traditional IT Vendors

Now I’m the first to criticize traditional IT vendors – for too long I’ve heard the horror stories of failed deployments, time and cost over runs, massive maintenance fees and the like. There’s no denying that traditional vendors can, frankly, be evil. But a recent post on GigaOm, likening IT departments as helpless individuals entrapped by IT’s equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome went a little too far. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great article and all, but was a little too black and white for my liking. In the words of Alan Trefler who wrote the post:

Sufferers are IT professionals who feel trapped by their software stack vendors – but have grown so accustomed to their bondage that they feel lost without them

Hmmmm – it’s an easy statement to make, but one which is a little dismissive of the ability of IT departments to make the right decisions (and yes, I’ve long said that IT departments are often their own worst enemies), and discounts the benefits that some of these vendors deliver – yes they can be evil, yes they often act in their own interests and against the best interests of their customers but alongside that there is a benefit to buying from these vendors.

In face in the post Trefler gives passing mention to the very real benefits that these vendors can deliver, again in his words:

the benefits are many: one-stop shopping, all-you-can-eat buffet, a walk-in closet of technology goodies. Just relax, accept the embrace and life gets suddenly very simple

After making these sweeping statements, Trefler gives some advice to organizations wishing to move away from these incumbent vendors. The advice reads well, and is no doubt attractive to individuals struggling against the shackles they feel trapped by, but I wonder how well the advice can really work at the coalface?

  • Firstly he suggests that organizations find small application spaces that can deliver quick value to the organization as a place to try some different vendors, stacks or approached
  • Secondly he advises getting the business to negotiate with the vendors, and with the business itself, to give a mandate to liberate parts of the organization from a single vendor or stack
  • Finally he advises that these small proof points be used to socialize the idea of rapid iteration for specific application areas

I’m cautious about Trefler’s advice for a couple of reasons – the first and most important reason is one of culture. Simply putting in place a new, more agile cell within the organization is akin to an organization suddenly adopting a “DevOps Strategy” – this is a crucial mistake that I’ve written about previously. Taken a broken system and simply thrusting some kind of external fix on it simply won’t work without changing the core culture behind it.

In this case, taking an organizational enterprise IT shop and creating a cell within it that can use agile methodologies, iterative development cycles and new technologies is, often, doomed to failure as the culture of the organization continues to assert its dominance. Look at the example below that Abhinav Keswani presented at Defrag last year – the experiment his organization took was absolutely a good idea, yet absolutely doomed to failure under the weight of the traditional organization.

So, while I like the message that Trefler is giving, I believe it is likely to fail within most organizations for cultural reasons. But don’t despair, counter intuitively I believe that this advice will also prove unnecessary in the future precisely because it won’t be seen as radical. Rather it will be a taste of the norm for vibrant organization’s and their IT units. As I wrote earlier this year – I firmly believe we are entering a period of extreme change for enterprises, and with the paradigm change comes a need for a new model of delivery – one in which developers are empowered to achieve their outcomes outside of tight control of the tools, processes and models they use.

This change won’t be bought on by a kind of skunk works approach towards IT (although, more on skunk works or black ops in a future post). rather it will come to be through a new shape of organization – one that ties IT inextricably to business outcomes. One where both the business and the IT function share a common language and one where agility isn’t some kind of solution that gets bolted on, but rather is the very cultural core of the organization.

It’s the sort of stuff that Jonathan Murray, the inspiring EVP and CTO of Warner Music Group often talks ad writes about – in his seminal post about the Composable Enterprise he spoke deeply about this trend. But my perception is that Murray and other IT leaders who really get this stuff see it just as much of a cultural and business change as it is a technological one.

Any advice that focuses on technology as a standalone entity is destined to failure today, and destined to be increasingly toxic to change and innovation tomorrow.

2 Comments
  • I can’t say I agree with the rationale of Alan. It refers to some obscure psychological view of things that doesn’t apply to business. If one feels entrapped, they just pay their way out of the problem. Yes, it is possible that you have been in business with a “evil” vendor; but that’s life. Find out what went wrong in your last vendor assessment, fix it and go for the next guy.
    I would, in contrast, focus on the second statement: “the benefits are many: one-stop shopping…”

  • We’ve been introducing Encanvas into large blue chips since 2004, solving the IT challenges no other agency could solve, and there’s no doubt that any smaller vendor wishing to make inroads into the large corporate world has to play by the ‘rules’ – which are generally there for a purpose. It’s wrong to assume that the way decisions are made in large organizations is simply short-sighted. At the same time, any technology that threatens to change the status quo will inevitably upset someone, somewhere. In my experience the trick is to focus on the problem, not the IT stack. Win hearts and minds by delivering value and the sponsorship will grow. But it is a hard slog! Ian.

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