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This news reminded me, obliquely, of a Jerry Seinfeld bit from the 2002 documentary movie “Comedian,” which I rented from Blockbuster last week. In it, Seinfeld was musing on the whole notion of a “think tank,” and what a funny phrase that is, and the weird mental picture it creates of people locked in some intellectual isolation chamber and expected to do something—think—that they can’t help doing anyway. Why not a “breathe tank” or a “metabolize-your-food tank”? When I think (yes, I do think, habitually) of the notion of an “IT industry think tank,” the Seinfeldian (or is it Pythonesque?) image that comes to mind is of rows of industry analysts chained to their PCs, like some sort of cyber-slave-galley, being commanded by the ghost of Thomas Watson Sr. (of IBM fame), under pain of bullwhip, to “think…think…think.”
OK, I’ve actually got a more serious comment on this news. I’ve been an IT industry analyst for years, and have worked in one of those “think tanks,” which, of course, are nothing like any of these images suggest. First of all, you’re not expected to “think” so much as you’re expected to comment. Most of these IT industry analyst firms are more like “commentary communities” than “think tanks.” Commentary gets delivered through various channels: reports, telebriefings, dialogues, consulting, conferences, public speaking, publishing in trade journals, quotes to inquiring reporters, and so forth. And commentary, in most of these firms, concerns the “news”—or the new paradigms, approaches, technologies, vendors, products, standards, and so forth—that continually pop up, as well as commentary on the “olds” (e.g., whether legacy approaches/products/etc are still relevant, or whether and to what extent they interoperate with the “news,” and to what extent they need to be migrated away from).
Fundamentally, in the IT industry food chain, IT industry analysts sit quite close to trade press reporters—the key difference being that analysts not only report on what’s new and important, but they themselves are experts, thought leaders, and consultants helping their customers to assimilate and apply all the new stuff.
So, the news that Gartner is acquiring Meta—what to make of it?
First off, these are the two largest firms in the IT industry research and analysis (R&A) market, so this is a very significant event. I suspect that these firms have a lot of common customers (many enterprises subscribe to two or more R&A firms’ services) who will be expecting some grand cross-fertilization from this nouveau convergence of two R&A “supermarkets.” The combined Gartner/Meta, with its diverse services and hundreds of analysts pumping out reports on a regular basis, will be even more dominant in this space.
Secondly, this merger by no means closes off meaningful competition in the R&A market. There are dozens of other firms in this space, with different technology or vertical focuses, different business models and offerings, and different analysts with different approaches and backgrounds. The IT industry R&A space is huge and ever-expanding, with low barriers to entry; indeed, a two-person analyst shop such as, say, Zapthink, can, through shrewd promotion, elevate themselves to a prominence (in a given, narrowly defined segment) all out of proportion to their size. In addition to boutiques and other, much smaller R&A shops, Gartner/Meta still have to contend with large rivals such as Forrester and IDC.
Thirdly, this merger doesn’t directly improve the quality or depth or relevance of Gartner/Meta’s collective R&A offerings—it’s more of a horizontal consolidation of very similar companies with similar offerings but slightly different customer bases. The combined Gartner/Meta brand has no special halo to it. Actually, much of the actual branding of R&A firms is tied up in identities of the particular analysts within them—the actual “gurus” who, each of them, provide a different take on the “news” and hence, in economic terms, are not directly substitutable for each other (though nobody’s indispensable and, with the rampant pack-analyst commentary cloud in which we all travel, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between Mr. Joe Analyst and Ms. Jane Analyst in terms of their perspectives and recommendations).
There’s no point in questioning whether Gartner’s “magic quadrant” is any better or worse an analytical approach than whatever Meta’s characteristic approach happens to be. Every R&A firm has its own approach which, among other factors, constitutes its corporate “brand.” Enterprise and vendor customers derive varying degrees of value from most R&A firms’ reports, conferences, etc. All the R&A firms do great work. All R&A firms’ analysts consume other firms’ analysts’ work products (usually, in the form of articles that analysts publish in the trade press; I know, cuz I read everybody, and lots of people read my 17-plus-year-and-running Network World column “Above the Cloud”; in terms of longevity, I'm practically their "columnist emeritus," though on the masthead I'm simply "contributing editor"). And we read each others’ blogs (an analyst remains an analyst, regardless of whether he/she is drawing a salary from some larger firm or is simply self-employed and self-motivated).
As analysts, you have to continually provide free samples of your brainpower, through various media, to show the world that you’re staying fresh and that you’ve “got the goods.” The best analysts are also synthesists: bringing in many sources of information and perspective: providing innovative and (hopefully) useful new ways of looking at problem spaces. If we’re doing our jobs well, we become master clarifiers of all the complexity and dynamism in the environment. We also help vendors to understand where they fit in the evolving IT food chain, and help enterprise customers to align their plans and protect their investments in an ever changing world.
IT R&A firms can consolidate all they want. No one firm-—no one individual analyst, for that matter—-will ever monopolize smart thinking on the day’s events and the future’s likely shape.
There's always someone out there with fresher thinking.