Analyzing the Analysts

FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - When the health of your network is on the line, sometimes it's prudent to get a second opinion of the diagnosis before you operate. One of the specialists to turn to for a consultation is the IT research provider.

An IT research firm provides information, analysis and advice that helps companies track technology trends, benchmark operations, and identify and evaluate vendors. It's a bit ironic that before you can make any decisions, you'll need to pick an advisory service.

If you work for a big company that has lots of high-risk technology decisions at stake, you'll most likely select two or three IT research firms to rely on.

No one firm has the corner on advice, so buyers of research generally use a portfolio of services to compare opinions and data.

There are plenty of choices, ranging from large, influential companies to boutiques with highly specialized knowledge and depth of content and expertise.

Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. To help you sort through the options, we've assembled a basic guide to the IT research players that focus on various aspects of networking. While this chart isn't an all-inclusive list, it features the best-known firms that are worth evaluating.

An important factor to consider is that IT research firms have two major audiences: IT users and IT vendors. The leading companies got their start serving one group or the other, and these roots drive the way the firms operate. To find out if a firm's content and advice can meet your requirements or if it's better-suited to the needs of vendors, go to Network World Fusion, DocFinder 7728, to examine a list of attributes.

Paying for information

IT professionals are generally satisfied with their IT research services, according to Outsell, a company in Burlingame, California, that tracks the information industry. The research providers aren't loved, nor are they despised.

Many high-tech executives have come to rely on IT research companies as a form of security - a trusted and neutral external resource for substantiating or bolstering a particular decision. While some clients complain about pricing, analyst availability or unprofessional salespeople, few are willing to do without IT research altogether.

The average company spends about 2 percent of its IT budget on research, with some variations depending on the overall size of the company. This is a substantial investment for many companies. If you're worried that an IT research firm may be out of your reach, there are several attractively priced offerings for small firms to consider.

Meta Group, for example, offers substantial discounts for small businesses.

Other companies offer bundling deals that represent big savings. Most of the time, you can also find cost-effective alternatives if you don't need access to analysts.

But the bad news is that pricing is all over the map. Standard pricing is a concept that receives little more than lip service, and most IT research subscribers pay much less than list price. Discounting has created a more difficult buying process because clients are often left with the feeling that if they had done something else, they might have gotten a better deal. What's more, complex packaging options make it difficult to compare services.

Shopping list

Here are some tips to keep in mind when you're shopping for IT research services:

* Know your needs and bottom line. Be realistic about the number of services you require, the topics covered, how many people need the data, and what type of inquiry privileges you need.

* Coordinate and consolidate subscriptions within and across IT research firms to leverage buying power.

* Move subscription renewals as close as possible to the same time and ideally have that time coincide with the end of the month, quarter or fiscal year.

Companies sometimes slash prices when their salespeople are pressed to meet quotas.

* Go out to bid and generate a request for proposal (RFP) where required. The RFP not only reinforces that you've clarified your needs, but gives the supplier concrete objectives to address. Compare pricing with publicly available information. For example, Gartner Group publishes General Services Administration pricing, which represents its best price in the marketplace.

* Play with bundling. Sometimes a firm that doesn't want to discount its price will give you concessions such as additional content or access to analysts.

* Evaluate alternative sources. The Internet is creating competition for this part of the information industry. New entrants pop up every day. Trade publications such as Network World have created robust, searchable Web sites rich with content.

* Last but not least, remember you don't get what you don't ask for.

Stratigos is co-founder and president of Outsell, a Burlingame, California, research firm that focuses exclusively on the information industry. She can be contacted at astratigos@outsellinc.com.

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