In the very near future, your client’s criteria for finding a Microsoft Partner for their organization is going to change. Instead of looking for a firm that has an in-house base of expertise across all of their needs, they might be more interested in whether you play well with others. We all know that Technology is very…. well it’s technical. It always has been. For decades, technology consulting firms have strived to be a one-stop shop for any client’s needs. “Here at Acme I.T. we say From a broken mouse to a custom business process workflow, we can handle that”.
In our firm, we focus exclusively on Microsoft Cloud Solutions. Yet, not a day goes by that a client does not ask me if we can also handle X, Y or Z for them. For many customers, particularly in the midsized business space, there seems to be an assumption that if you know any technology, you must also know every technology. When I tell someone, we are not the guys who can fix their broken mouse, I sometimes sense disappointment that maybe we are not as savvy as they thought we were. I guess that is why so many firms would have answered yes.
VooDoo for all
As technology consultants we are all guilty of supporting the notion that I.T. is Voodoo; a powerful black art, only understood by a few. This has served us well as we now have a vast client base who wouldn’t dare try to figure out what we are doing. “So why do I need all this stuff again?”; “Don’t ask, or the Voodoo gods will make your email stop flowing”. Like patients, who after an incomprehensible diagnosis from their Doctor, do whatever he says in order to prevent some misunderstood, but potentially terrible thing from happening to them. But the real value of Voodoo has been is ability to hide mediocrity. The client has an “I.T.” problem… we may, or may not be qualified to solve it, but fortunately the client has no idea. Our firm would be considered “I.T. Consultants”, but if a client said they were having network problems… well, that’s Voodoo to me. The dollars client’s have spent on highly qualified people, attacking problems for which they are not at all qualified just because it falls under the I.T. umbrella, has to be staggering.
Fake it till ya make it
The imaginary concept of an all-knowing I.T. Consulting firm is starting to show some cracks. Two major drivers are behind this. First, clients are getting smarter. We should have seen that coming. People are curious by nature and skeptical. Tell me that I need to replace my malfunctioning on-premise Exchange with a hosted version, and I not going let your “Because I said so” fly anymore. Nope, I’m gonna go do a little research on my own. Uhoh. This is not good. When I come back and ask if you checked the DNS, I am going to figure out pretty quickly that your recommendation that I move everything was only due to the fact that you don’t know shit about fixing Exchange Servers. Just like Doctors, I.T. Consultants’ opinions are increasingly being challenged by clients. The other major driver? At the same time our clients are getting smarter, we are getting dumber. It’s not that we are literally losing brain cells, rather our brain cells are fully saturated. There is too much to learn and it is changing way too fast.
The Death of the Master Builder
There was a time many years ago that if you wanted to build a house you would hire a Master Builder. Together with a few helpers, he would literally undertake every single task, from clearing the lot to installing the ceiling fans. As systems became more complex, municipalities stepped up and questioned this “Expert in Everything” impact on public safety and started requiring special licenses for certain tasks like electrical and plumbing etc. The Master Builder gave way to the Contractor, who was now required to assemble a team of separate experts to build the same house. The idea that a single firm could obtain all of the licenses, with the knowledge and testing that would be required, was no longer viable. Yet, for years clients have hired “Master I.T. Consultants”.
The Rise of the I.T. Contractor
As a business grows from small to midsized or larger, their I.T. requirements grow exponentially. Business owners may not realize this, but we do. There comes a point were we have to make a choice. Do I provide unqualified help for certain issues and hope I can bullshit my client, or do I confess, that for this particular issue, I do not have the expertise required. This is where the contractor model could come in. I can tell my client, “Yes, I can handle that for you by bringing in another firm with that expertise.”. But this presents its own hurdles. First, am I prepared to tell my client that I don’t know everything there is to know, and have my client start thinking they need to find another firm who knows everything? The other hurdle: what if I bring in another firm and my client likes them better and kicks me to the curb? If you have not built a solid relationship of trust with your client then these are high probabilities.
A Foot in Both Camps
For many years I was in the commercial real estate development business and so I have dealt with many construction contractors on large projects. The successful ones knew how to strike a balance between advocating for me, while supporting their sub-contractors, all in the shadow of the knowledge that a change-order from a sub-contractor usually resulted in additional revenue for the contractor also. The ability to balance these conflicting interests is a skill to be learned by the I.T. Consulting community. I expect my contractor to call out his sub-contractors for shoddy work or falling behind schedule or over-charging for a change in their work. At the same time it is a challenge for me to fully trust that my contractor is doing this as my best interests are not always aligned with his, trust is crucial.
Why is this Inevitable?
At this point many of you may be thinking that I am full of crap and this will not only never happen, but is not even necessary. Fair enough. Let me give you something else to think about. I was looking at the Dynamics CRM Online Roadmap yesterday. In it were five significant waves of enhancements, new features, etc. All five are supposed to land in FY14. I would like to think I am somewhat of an expert in this field, but I confess, I don’t know anything about these new waves, and neither does anybody else, at least not enough to claim expert status. I will have to be in a continuous learning mode just to maintain a level of competency in this one single thing: CRM. I will do this, and many of my contemporaries will also, but you will not. You cannot, because this is just one thing and you are offering 20 things. The rate of change is accelerating at a pace that no one can keep up with more than a few things, and you can’t justify staffing up with experts for all of these things because you don’t have enough continuous demand across all these things, no matter how big you are.
What will this look like?
I foresee a time in the very near future where a client will hire an “I.T. Contractor”, not so much based on their specific domain expertise across all of their needs, but on their ability to manage a team of independent partners, each possessing a high level of domain expertise in their respective fields. I know, this is supposed to be the role of a CIO. But frankly, particularly in the small and midsized space they either do not exist, or too many are doing a piss poor job. Many of today’s midsized CIOs are Voodoo perpetrators themselves. And if you agree that it is difficult even for us to maintain competency in this fragmented landscape, the corporate CIO has no chance. Yet they continue to try to be Contractors themselves. Even as vain as Donald Trump is, he still hires real contractors to build his buildings.
Microsoft has been preaching that the best way to grow your practice is to focus on an industry vertical. Sound advice indeed, but even this does not solve the issues I described above. Even if you focus on a vertical, their I.T. requirements are just as wide as anybody else’s. I think we will see more and more firms focusing on not only an industry vertical, but also a platform vertical. Like a Manufacturing/CRM consultant, or a Healthcare/SharePoint expert. There are an awful lot of combinations there to me made. But could you find enough work in a niche of a niche? Well, if the consultants who are currently trying to fill those requirements with incompetence, instead embraced Partner Teaming, this would absolutely work and be the best solution for the client. I get calls all the time, mostly from India, asking if we need any SharePoint help from their 600 person staff, this does not impress me. But imagine thousands of smaller firms, each specializing in a vertical and platform, and assembling an absolute all-star team to serve a client.
Hmm… so how do we get from here to there?
Let me know your thoughts on my prognostications below.