Analyze this

All this industry wants for Christmas (or Hanukkah) is some good news. On Wednesday, an Accenture survey offered some.

IT spending will rise, it says. Enterprises will outsource. Customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and supply chain management are on the agenda. No more layoffs.

There may be more than four weeks before New Year’s Eve, but this sounds like reason to break out the noisemakers, doesn’t it?

Not so fast. Take a closer look what is actually presented in the results of this research (conducted in cooperation with Wirthlin Worldwide) and this looks more like pure spin, a pathetic attempt by a consulting firm to validate its existence.

Accenture and Wirthlin conducted the survey by phoning executives from 150 Fortune 1000 companies between October and November — just in time to beat the holiday blues. The polling company obviously asked respondents to pick from a variety of choices their strategic priorities in the coming year. Approximately 91 per cent said a greater focus on customers was at the top of their “To Do” list for 2002.

I would love to know why the other nine per cent didn’t put it there. Maybe they saw through the self-serving nature of the question, but Accenture didn’t: “Customer focus is top New Year’s resolution for executives according to Accenture survey,” its press release proclaims. Hopefully they will be able to stick with it longer than most people manage with resolutions about weight loss, exercising or giving up smoking.

While outsourcing is also trumpeted as a key trend for 2002, the actual nature of the responses do not suggest a great deal of confidence in the model. Only 17 per cent said they were likely to explore outsourcing; 28 per cent said they would merely consider it. Who wouldn’t?

We’ve all picked from this sliding scale. Last night, for example, I got a phone call from a polling firm shortly after dinner. I didn’t feel like taking the survey but I couldn’t bring myself to hang up. It was clearly commissioned by a local TV or radio station (I’m guessing the CBC), and I was asked a series of carefully skewed questions about my listening and viewing preferences. They went something like this: “The CBC offers programming that satisfies my needs. Do you very much agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree or very much disagree?” In this case, I imagine CEOs were asked something like: “Is outsourcing non-core business functions something you would pursue in the coming year, continue to pursue, very likely explore or consider?”

The 27 per cent is then translated by Accenture partner Jerry Garcia, as follows: “They realize that in an evolving marketplace, outsourcing non-core functions like manufacturing or warehouse management is a smart, strategic, and cost-effective way to focus on what their companies do best.” At least, a little more than a quarter of them do.

If there is any real value here, it is the way it underscores some things we already sense in the industry’s mood. The survey says 71 per cent, for example, plan to upgrade existing software or technology, but mostly in areas where they have made some initial investments. That sounds more like the cautious IT industry I know.

After all the downsizing and scaling back we’ve witnessed in 2001, it is only natural that we look for some signs of light at the end of the tunnel. That doesn’t mean we need to sugar-coat statistics so that IT companies sleep better at night. Since it has changed its name from Andersen Consulting, it seems that the “accent” in Accenture is intended to accentuate only the positive.

sschick@plesman.com

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