When the technology sector exploded and became the darling of financial markets through the 1990s, it gave birth to a secondary industry: technology awards. But when the technology sector hit a slump, so too did the awards industry – especially those tied to technology shows that disappeared as marketing

budgets tightened and the ability of companies to attend waned.

Standalone awards like the Branham and CIPA awards also found they had to deal with turbulent times, and chose to do it in different ways.

The Ottawa-based Branham Group, a market strategy firm which founded and manages the million-dollar Branham Awards program, announced on April 11 that it would not hold its third annual black-tie awards.

Branham Group President and CEO J. Wayne Gudbranson said after producing its annual Branham 300 listing of Canada’s top 300 technology companies, “”the indications were that the sectors weren’t doing all that well.”” As an example he cited an 18 percent drop in cumulative revenue of the top 100 software companies, compared to growth of 15 per cent the previous year. Conversations with potential award applicants further confirmed that applications would not surpass the 100 mark, unlike the previous two years.

“”Some of the companies that we thought would be ideal candidates to apply were saying, ‘we’re struggling this year and we don’t know if we’re going to have the time to fill out a detailed application,’”” Gudbranson said. “”The one thing that you don’t want an awards program to do is promote companies that are not doing well. That’s nothing to write home to mother about.””

The Canadian Information Productivity Awards decided on a different approach for its 11th year. CIPA, now run by management consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst and Young with former partner Rogers Media maintaining participation as a media sponsor, is changing its program to reflect the organization’s new mission, said CIPA president Norm Kirkpatrick.

“”CIPA was created to help quantify to organizations whether technology was worth investing in,”” Kirkpartick said. “”The purpose of CIPA today is to celebrate innovation. Now, no one questions whether IT should be part of your business. Everyone knows it’s critical.””

In addition to the CIPA gala event to be held on Nov. 18, the organization is working to develop a series of information events throughout the year and opportunities for companies to network and learn from one another to promote and encourage innovative applications of information technology. Kirkpatrick says this is an essential component of pulling the sector out of the depressed state in which it finds itself.

Contrary to popular wisdom, the current slump is an ideal time to reward excellence in the industry, Kirkpatrick said.

“”There’s probably no more important time to do it than when organizations are struggling with whether to make the capital investment in information technology and fund these projects. This is the time when you have to do it because in tough times is when you can make the biggest gains,”” he said.

“”Your competition is now global; it’s not the guy across the street.””

The challenge of getting sponsors is a constant pressure irrespective of economic conditions but not insurmountable, the managers of both awards programs said.

“”In tough times, whether you’re looking for sponsorships or selling a product, your sales cycle will be a little longer, Gudbranson said, who nonetheless said The Branham Awards were not cancelled due to lack of sponsorship. The challenge is mitigated by the credibility that rigorous and established awards programs have with past sponsors and the industry, Kirkpatrick noted.

“”It’s always a good time to celebrate excellence,”” said Lynda Leonard, vice-president of communications and research at the Information Technology Association of Canada, which sponsors both awards, and whose members have won Branhams and CIPAs.

“”It’s times like this when we really need a good party and a good celebration,”” she said. “”There isn’t a lot of margin in this current climate for what some might consider a discretionary activities. I think what we have to do is get people to understand that can be viewed as a mainstream promotional activity.””

Credible awards programs can only help improve the industry as a whole by highlighting best practices, and might be a key component of lifting it out of the current slump, Leonard said.

“”We haven’t historically been a very reflective industry. Our focus is very much on getting the job done and getting on to the next project, so it’s very good for the industry – a sign of maturity – to introduce the opportunity to reflect.””

Signs of economic recovery are starting to grow, and while no one in the industry wants to go on record saying the worst is over and better days will return to the sector, those days are coming, Leonard said. Analysts say that economic indicators suggest a recovery will occur in late 2004 or early 2005, with U.S. figures showing an increase in activity in the first two quarters of 2003.

Another indicator may be the return of awards and the establishment of new ones. The Branham Awards will be deciding on a host city for its 2004 awards next month, and in June, Cisco issued a call for entries for its first annual Cisco Growing with Technology Awards, which recognize creative uses of networking technology by small and medium enterprise.

Comment: pipeline@itbusiness.ca

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