It has been said that an idealist is someone who is sufficiently distant from a problem.
To confirm the accuracy of this definition, look no further than academia and politics - the only two professions that are able to sustain idealism's colossal blunders. (Indeed, politics thrives on them.) Thankfully the market imposes natural checks on idealism, because businesspeople must solve the central problem of human life - transforming finite resources into valuable products and services for a profit - or they will fail. It is a tough, full-time job to which idealists add little value beyond cheerleading for "excellence".
But incongruity with reality has never stopped idealists from peddling their visions. These visions can be deadly, such as Plato's ideal state, Politeia (mistranslated as Republic), or Karl Marx's labour theory of value. Or they can be merely self-inflating, such as the importance of vendor independence for solutions integrators.
Independent integrators have long touted their vendor neutrality as a competitive edge and key benefit to their business customers. It is now a widespread article of faith used to explain what's often, at root, the simple need to grow by diversifying product expertise.
Independence posturing became particularly fervent last year when Computer Associates (CA) made its hostile take-over bid for Computer Sciences Corp (CSC). Among those expressing alarm at the deal was, naturally enough, CSC Chairman Van Honeycutt, who declared that CSC's vendor neutrality "would be severely compromised if CSC was to be acquired by CA, and . . . we would lose credibility in the marketplace".
Hmm. The market credibility of the largest IT-services organisation in the world, IBM Global Services, doesn't appear to be suffering because of its vendor affiliation - not with 1998 sales that are roughly $US5 billion greater than its nearest rival, vendor-neutral EDS. The other leading 29 US vendor-backed IT-services firms are most likely free from "credibility" problems with customers, too. And they have $US35 billion or so in combined 1998 revenue to prove it.
Now, I'm not questioning the sincerity of Mr Honeycutt or that of his many peers who have since paid public homage to vendor neutrality. Idealists are, by definition, true believers. It's even probable that they'd ignore or rationalise the findings of a survey conducted by consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Co, which asked 1000 corporate customers across the UK and the US to rank the importance of various criteria for selecting an IT solution and its provider. "Objectivity," a mantra chanted inside McKinsey, wasn't even among the top six parameters chosen by customers. Number one was time to market; number two was solution soundness.
In other words, what's most important to business IT buyers today is how quickly you can get your proposed solution online and then how well it works. And they don't want the former criterion to be compromised by the latter.
Think about it. With the Internet economy steadily jacking up the rate of change in business models and resultant comparative advantage, it makes sense that vendor neutrality is less relevant than ever to IT customers. Independent integrators may earnestly persuade their prospects that a smorgasbord approach to solution selection is best, but the reality is that they're only offering gravy. The meat and potatoes - implementation speed and functional sufficiency - are often just as easily served by vendors or third-party firms with a single platform.
The sooner independent integrators recognise the false value of vendor neutrality, the sooner they can focus on delivering the true value of their solutions. But, of course, that expectation may itself be idealistic.
Anthony Strattner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org