Desperate Times for Search and Selling Consulting

December 22, 2011

I saw a news story about the uptick in the housing market. Perhaps you read “Get Started ‘On’ Dec. 21: Housing Shows Recovery Signs, Lobbyists Warn against Tax Cut Expiration.” You may have seen the recent story “Home Foreclosures Jump in Third Quarter-Report.” Contradictions are one indicator which tells me that no clear signal is emerging. I wrote last night (December 20, 2011) about the Oracle financial softening and how search acquisitions will not do much, if anything, to firm up Oracle’s revenues. Since the economic meltdown became evident in the spring of 2008 with the collapse of BearStearns, we have entered a new financial territory. The maps are still being created and exploration is underway.

Most organizations are struggling to find a way to accomplish two difficult goals simultaneously. Personally I cannot multi-task, but the financial pressure is so great that many executives assume that more effort will pull the marshmallows out of the bonfire. I am not so sure.

One goal for many organizations with which I am familiar is to keep existing revenues from eroding more quickly. Since I focus on software and content, the challenge of generating new revenue from old products is a big one. Most of the executives whom I know are hard working, optimistic people. But the issues is preventing revenue from existing and reasonably well understood products and services from tanking.

The “big idea” will touch you, imparting “wisdom” and more.

The other goal is for organizations to find new revenue. The MBA types have fancy diagrams to explain strategies and tactics. I have worked out a few basic options which have worked for me when I had a “real” job (not as an azure chip consulting, journalist, or middle school teacher). Here are my non MBA options:

  • Buy a company and pretend that its products and services are “new”
  • Take an existing product and service, reposition or repackage it, and target a “new” market with this “new” product. Nothing material is done, but the marketing copy changes.
  • Identify an existing product or service and graft something “novel” like making a search system into an iPad app or some equivalent maneuver. The “new” product is then pitched as “revolutionary” or whatever claim common sense and one’s attorney permits.
  • Make a bet on something outside of one’s core competency. Believe me, this happens frequently. Examples include some of Google’s products to a local catering service’s attempt to set up a full service restaurant.

In this context of financial pressure, the need for r3evenues, and the options available to executives, I pondered “The End of the Web? Don’t Bet on It. Here’s Why” by Mark Suster, a member of the Dark Side; that is, venture capital world. The foundation of his write up was a presentation by the azurist George Colony, the CEO of Forrester Research.

I don’t have much to say about the specifics of either the Forrester notion that certain digital resources increase over time; specifically, storage, processing cycles, and network capacity. I don’t have much to say about the Dark Side analysis of the Forrester presentation.

Here’s what interests me:

First, I think these big, well publicized “thought pieces” are essentially devoid of substantive analysis. The “big idea” becomes a foundation upon which assertions, arguments, and counter arguments rest. The goal is to associated Forrester with a topic and generate buzz, visibility, or what is called a “conversation” about the “big idea”. I don’t have the energy to explain why the three “resources” are essentially one “thing.” Believe the assertion if you wish

. The impact is intellectually irrelevant because once the “big idea” is in the blogs, the indexes, and the Facebook Twitter swamp—the assertion is true for most of those following “big ideas” from consulting firms.

Second, azure chip consulting firms, just like the Blue Chip or “real” consulting firms in the rarified atmosphere of a McKinsey or Bain have to fight to keep revenues growing. The problem is getting worse, not better for the Blue Chips and the azure chip crowd of which Forrester is a member. In order to get clients to think about hiring a consulting firm, the firm has to find a way to crank up the milliGauss level. What this means is that the need for Blue Chips and azure chip firms to find and publicize a “big idea” is increasing. The problem is that many “big ideas” are not big ideas at all. Many of the ideas are not even interesting. The quest for the “big idea” calls attention to the gap that exists between the here-and-now pain the client has and the in-the-future pain the “big idea” addresses. I see a gap, but you may not. That’s what makes the “conversation” take place.

Third,  the discussion of an alleged “big idea” provides a pick up truck which can be used to haul more wild and crazy ideas. I don’t want to characterize the Dark Side response to the azure chip “big idea” as anything but fascinating, thought provoking, and high value. However, in the back of my mind is the notion that the diagrams, the facts, and the discussion of everything from programming to apps on mobile devices is about what the Dark Side seeks to fund. In short, the response to the “big idea” is an argument for what the Dark Side sees as really important.

Three observations:

  1. I find the consultant’s “big idea” and the subsequent discussion confusing. The assertions do not line up with my experience. That’s okay, but I like to read stuff that relates to what I do every day. Maybe I am in some weird bubble or another dimension. But the “app is crap” and total cost of ownership” ideas are positioned in a way that makes me wonder about the underlying assumptions for the argument itself.
  2. The manipulation of buzzwords is now an art form in itself. I read words and know that these are supposed to press my buttons. They don’t. I ignore the buzzwords because no one explains their connotation or denotation in a specific discourse’s context. I am, therefore, easily confused.
  3. The mash up of different concepts often makes clarity go away. Just like the Department of Defense presentations which rely on hot graphics to keep the audience tuned in, the use of semantics from business, technology, and pop culture are like the chrome trim on a 1958 Oldsmobile 98. Hey, the thing is an automobile, not the reason Detroit developed nickel-centric plating. The intent and the actual use are in the way of one another in my opinion.

The 1958 Olds 98. Nifty chrome, but it is an automobile. And a convertible no less! Do ideas work like Detroit in the 1950s?

How does this relate to search and information retrieval? I think search is broken both at the commercial level of a LexisNexis and the public level of the ad supported Google service. I see social as a response to a particular need, not a solution to every findability problem. I see the diagrams, the buzzwords, and the mash up of data as evidence that those seeking revenues can bundle “stuff” and try to get people to buy it. I don’t see clarification. I see increasing confusion.

Who benefits from confusion? Blue chip and azure chip consultants in my opinion. Where do you find these folks? LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. We have built a nifty self referential system to produce baloney that is supposed to be magnetic. To me the “big ideas” and the subsequent cross pollination remains baloney. Now the bumper on a 58 Olds? That was substantial by comparison.

Net net: “Big idea” marketing. More of it in 2012.

Stephen E Arnold, December 22, 2011

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