It was the 1980s when I first heard this phrase in IT and it was “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” The idea was that IBM was so well known, trusted and reliable that it was the safe choice as a vendor for a technology decision maker to select. As long as you chose IBM, you were not going to get in trouble, no matter how costly or effective the resulting solution turned out to be.
The statement on its own feels like a simple one. It makes for an excellent marketing message and IBM, understandably, loved it. But it is what is implied by the message that causes so much concern.
First, we need to understand what the role of the IT decision maker in question is. This might sound simple, but it is surprising how easily it can be overlooked. Once we delve into the ramifications of the statement itself, it is far too easy to lose track of the real goals. In the role of a decision maker, the IT professional is tasked with selecting the best solution for their organization based on its ability to meet organizational goals (normally profits). This means evaluating options, shielding non-technical management from sales people and marketing, understanding the marketplace, research and careful evaluation. These things seem obvious, until we begin to put things into practice.
What we have to then analyze is not that “no one ever got fired for choosing product X”, but what the ramifications of such a statement actually are.
First, the statement implies an organization that is going to judge IT decision making not on its merits or applicability but on the brand name recognition of the product maker. In order for a statement like this to have any truth behind it, it requires the entire organization to either lack the ability or desire to evaluate decisions but also an organizational desire to see large, expensive brand names (the statement is always made in conjunction with extremely high cost items compared to the alternatives) over other alternatives. An organizational preference towards expensive, harder to justify spends is a dangerous one at best. We assume that not only does buying the most expensive, most famous products will be judged well compared to less expensive or less well known ones, but that buying products is seen as beneficial to not buying products; even though often the best IT decisions are to not buy things when no need exists. Prioritizing spending over savings for their own reasons without consideration for the business need is very bad, indeed.
Second, now that we realize the organizational reality that this implies, that the IT decision maker is willing to seize this opportunity to leverage corporate politics as a means of avoiding taking the time and effort to make a true assessment of needs for the business but rather skip this process, possibly completely, we have a strong question of ethics. Essentially, whether out of fear of the organization not properly evaluating the results or by blaming the decision maker for unforeseeable events after the fact or of looking to take advantage of the situation to be paid for a job that was not done, we have a significant problem either individually, organizationally, or both.
For any IT decision maker to use this mindset, one that there is safety in a given decision regardless of suitability, there has to be a fundamental distrust of the organization. Whether this is true of the organization or not is not known, but that the IT decision maker believes it is required for such a thought to even exist. In many organizations it is understandable that politics trump good decision making and it is far more important to make decisions for which you cannot be blamed rather than trying honestly to do a good job. That is sad enough on its own, but so often it is simply an opportunity to skip the very job for which the IT decision maker is hired and paid and instead of doing a difficult job that requires deep business and technical knowledge, market research, cost analysis and more – simply allowing a vendor to sell whatever they want to the business.
At best, it would seem, we have an IT decision maker with little to no faith in the ethics or capabilities of those above them in the organization. At worst we have someone actively attempting to take advantage of a business by being paid to be a key decision maker while, instead of doing the job for which they are hired or even doing nothing at all, actively putting their weight behind a vendor that was not properly evaluated based possibly solely on not needing to do any of the work themselves.
What should worry an organization is not that vendors that could often be considered “safe” get recommended or selected, but rather why they were selected. Vendors that fall into this category often offer many great products and solutions or they would not earn this reputation in the first place. But likewise, after gaining such a reputation those same vendors have a strong financial incentive to take advantage of this culture and charge more while delivering less as they are not being selected, in many cases, on their merits but instead on their name, reputation or marketing prowess.
How does an organization address this effect? There are two ways. One is to evaluate all decisions carefully in a post mortem structure to understand what good decisions look like and not limit post mortems to obviously failed projects. The second is to look more critical, rather than less critically, at popular product and solution decisions as these are red flags that decision making may be being skipped or undertaken with less than the appropriate rigor. Popular companies, assumed standard approaches, solutions found commonly in advertising or commonly recommended by sales people, resellers, and vendors should be looked at with a discerning eye, moreso than less common, more politically “risky” choices.