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Why independent advisors matter to enterprise projects - Brian Sommer

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 13, 2014
Independent advisers aren't superheroes who can parachute into troubled locales and set everything right. But they are a vital resource for the empowered enterprise customer.

Brian Sommer

Here's my deal for 2014: I'll stop writing about why independent views are critical to project success - just as soon as we get through a year that isn't peppered with disconcerting project failures.

No, independent advisers aren't superheroes who can parachute into troubled locales and set everything right. But they are a vital resource for the empowered enterprise customer (along with active user group involvement). I've laid out that position on independents already, so it's time to seek out new perspectives.

Enter Brian Sommer, enterprise blogger and a seasoned veteran of the enterprise services industry. Sommer has riffed on the impact of independents before, as far back as 2007 (before he moved his blog to its current location on ZDNet).

In his 2007 piece, Sommer painted a pretty skeptical picture of services firms pushing solutions rather than embracing the role of a trusted project advisor. With the modern emphasis on the salesperson-as-advisor, I wanted Sommer's take on whether this issue is still a serious one for enterprise customers.

Given Sommer is such a staunch advocate of the value of cloud, I wanted to know if he felt cloud projects reduced the need for independent advisors. Sommer has also called for the need for 'cosmopolitan independents' - whatever the heck that is, it sounded intriguing. We went back and forth over email and I've boiled down the highlights for you here.

Jon Reed: Regarding your views on the 2007 piece, you wrote on independent advisors/consultants, has there been any change or progress on this issue of 'selling solutions - not providing advice' since that time? Or is this still a critical issue?

Brian Sommer: In fact, I’ve seen even more ‘consultants’ go the route of 'solution-selling integrator' since then. This is especially the case with small to mid-sized integrators who don’t have a great internal marketing capability and rely on a key vendor or two to help them get sales leads.  I’d advise any end-user to query potential ‘consultants’ as to how they generate new client leads. If the new leads aren’t a result of thought leadership (that generates inbound service assistance requests), then they probably aren’t consultants – they’re solution sellers.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being an integrator, just be upfront what your conflicts of interests are. I publish mine at the end of blog posts all the time. If you feel you must hide from prospective clients how you get compensated from vendors, how much of your revenue is from one or two technology vendors, etc., then you probably are doing something unethical and/or illegal.

Reed: You have advocated for the value of independent advisers during the vendor selection process. Do you also see a role for an independent on the project itself (or for periodic audits up to go-live?) If so, would this be the same person/firm that advised during vendor selection, or a different firm?

Sommer: I believe many software projects led by an integrator would be helped by having an independent person/firm doing the quality assurance review. Letting the same firm that is doing the integration work also perform the quality assurance role can likely lead to a big conflict of interest. In my work experience, I’ve been in both roles. I’ve QA’d our own projects and also the work of others. Customers certainly see the benefit of hearing from someone with a potentially different perspective as to project status, quality of deliverables, task sequencing issues, etc.  While I hate someone else criticizing my work, it does spur me on to do an even better deliverable.

I’ve heard some large IT shops indicate that they do the QA role when they hire integrators. Some shops have great talent for this and that’s fantastic. Some of their best people for this work come with big firm integration expertise. Others could benefit from an independent who is not as wed to the ways and customs of the customers' IT practices or those of the integrator.  Size isn’t always a determinant for the need for independent review.

The last part of your question is about the ability of the selection consultant being the independent QA person for the implementation. If this independent is qualified for this role, I don’t see any issue there. I would want to know, first, if this consultant has relevant implementation experience with the selected package as the best QA person is someone who has first-hand knowledge of the trouble spots within the software and how it gets implemented.

Reed: Cloud/SaaS projects have a different value prop and generally less resource strain on IT organizations, but does that mean that the need for independent advice on product/vendor selection and implementation is reduced, or is it similar?

Sommer: The value proposition is definitely different with cloud/SaaS solutions and many of the implementations take less effort. However, the solutions out there can have widely different levels of functionality, varied levels of integration complexity and significant differences in multi-tenancy support - to name but a few big differences out there.

So, do people need help choosing/selecting what’s right for their firm? Yes, they do. They need people with first-hand knowledge of the different products – new products with which their firm likely lacks prior knowledge. Spending a little upfront for great advice may often pay huge dividends later in a faster, cheaper more trouble-free software implementation and ownership.

Software buyers should seek out guidance from experts on these issues:

  • The competitive landscape for application software is undergoing significant upheaval. Right now,  we have one of these change cycles underway, as on-premises product lines are falling prey to newer cloud solutions.
  • Delivery methods are changing. The current apps market isn’t just about on-premises vs. cloud. It’s also about how newer solutions support, first and foremost, a mobile-device enabled and remotely connected worker.
  • Radical innovations (think social, big data, analytics, etc.) are causing the best vendors to re-imagine, for example, what a general ledger should be doing in this new world. Old vendors always try to bolt-on transformational technologies to their staid, old-school offerings. whereas modern vendors rethink, re-imagine and radically re-engineer their solutions to really enable future customer market successes.

Reed: You have talked about the need for not only for independents, but 'cosmopolitan independents.' Why does this distinction matter, and what is the ideal skill set of the 'cosmopolitan independent.'?

Sommer: Someone who is cosmopolitan is someone who is acutely aware of their surroundings.  While it may seem great that some colleagues are heads-down all-the-time, those people might be the last ones to realize the business is changing or being changed by competitors, governments, technology advances, evolving customers wants or new customer demographics. The best businesses and business people have awareness and empathy. They know what’s happening all the time;  they can imagine what it’s like to stand in their customers’ or suppliers’ shoes, and, as a result, they trigger adjustments in their firm’s strategies, go-to-market messages, product lines - and even their technology portfolio.

I have a couple of clients who, in their words, hire me just to 'push' their current global viewpoint. They actually do a pretty good job of collecting market intel, but they seek additional market validation. They want an independent to help them ensure that they aren’t reacting to a biased data set or looking at the world through rose colored glasses. The best firms aren’t seeking confirmation of their existing strategies. They want additional color, insights, data points and nuances to help them ferret better-tuned strategies and enhance their odds in winning in the marketplace.

What makes a great cosmopolitan independent? I’d say it somewhat depends on the role you need them for. By and large, get people who have significant access to multiple clients, multiple vendors, and many fellow independents. I’d also say that some of the most cosmopolitan folks are also ones willing and brave enough to write about their perspectives. On that last point, I also think long and hard about what I write and I want to make sure I’ve vetted these ideas with other analysts, clients, etc. Great independents aren’t necessarily great writers (and vice versa) but, where possible, check out the quality of an independent’s thinking in the pieces they author.

Reed: What would you say to a customer that wanted an independent voice at key milestones, but was concerned about managing political battles between the independent adviser and the prime vendor or SI consultants?

Sommer: My key advice would be to pick an advisor with some people skills and a great temperament. I’ve seen the scenario you’re painting where someone hires a technically brilliant independent advisor who has no appreciation for other people’s feelings, politics, change management, etc. This kind of person is probably not a good fit for this kind of role. Some independents, and I hate to say this, are independent because they can’t work well with others. My confidence in an independent filling this role goes up measurably if the individual has achieved some level of management (project or otherwise) in their career. Culture fit is important in these decisions.

Disclosure: Brian Sommer paid my Go Kart racing entrance fee while at the SAP Partner Summit in Miami, August 2013. SAP is a diginomica premier partner as of this writing.

Feature image credit: Reality change © Sergey Nivens -

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