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Who’s really shaping the digital future?

The words ‘digital economy’ conjure images of young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs breaking moulds in a world where technology is disruptive. But could the reality be much more mundane and mercantile?

When Facebook released “Facebook at work” earlier this year, the social networking goliath laid a huge challenge at the feet of LinkedIn, a powerful incumbent that had until then dominated its corner of the market.

The market segment in question – ‘Social Software in the Workplace’ – was recently identified as distinct from the wider social media marketplace by well-known industry analysts Gartner Inc.

Together with the several other sub-markets of social media the firm has identified in recent years, at first glance this seems to emphasise the sheer unstoppable energy of markets for the future digital economy — with the proliferation of not only products but entire product categories.

But could this explosion of new segments have a different source? Dig a little deeper and Gartner’s role appears highly significant.

For more than 30 years, Gartner has been telling the business world what the next thing in technology is. Its analysis works by listing recognised players operating in a new field and depicting them in its (in)famous graphical ranking, the Magic Quadrant.

NEC-conference-35 by NEC Corporation of America. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

The Magic Quadrant is central to the firm’s success and a large part of how it’s managed to retain its 30% share of the $4 bn annual market for industry analysis. But while it may be described as amongst the most important and influential pieces of business research produced today, it has (at least) one serious flaw.

Having used the system for more than three decades, Gartner knows just the right number of vendors to depict to construct a graphic decision-makers find useful — somewhere between 10 and 25.

This ‘beautiful picture’ — as the firm’s analysts have taken to calling it — gives CIOs just enough information to gain an ‘at a glance’ understanding of what’s going on in the market without rendering further advice from Gartner redundant.

The trouble is, what happens when there are hundreds rather than tens of players in a given segment? How do they map it then? As one of the firm’s analysts recently explained “…graphically you can, […] we’ve done it, you have 100 dots on the chart but its unreadable. It is just garbage.”

So when they were faced with a Magic Quadrant for ‘Social Software’ which looked ‘too cluttered’ to be a meaningful analytic tool for CIOs, the analysts decided they’d break it into smaller pieces.

Thus three new market segments ‘Social Software in the Workplace’, ‘Externally Facing Social Software’, and ‘Social CRM’ were born. And with them came three more aesthetically pleasing, marketable Magic Quadrants.

Let’s be clear in what we’re saying here. Some of the most important and high profile market segments of the digital economy were not created as a simple result of technological innovation or product differentiation driven by firms stretching boundaries.

These prosthetic markets don’t describe real, organic relationships between vendors and adopter communities. They were created by analysts to compensate for the limitations of Gartner’s signature research product.

We don’t know exactly how many of its 350 or so Magic Quadrants are prosthetic, but the fieldwork we’ve conducted during the past ten years suggests it’s likely to be quite a few.

Nor are Gartner alone in the practice. Its main rival Forrester also configures new markets around the constraints of the ‘Forrester Wave’ — its depiction of around seven to 10 vendors. And given there are now as many as 700 similar firms producing influential research on the digital economy, it may be these prosthetic markets are more prevalent than we think.

These interventions aren’t trivial. They ultimately shape the process of innovation and product development that constitutes the digital economy.

Thankfully many of the savvy tech firms seem to recognise this. But with Facebook at Work, Facebook could easily end up losing out if it isn’t careful.

Not only is its entry late, it seems surprisingly unaware its new ‘Social Software in the Workplace’ battleground has in many respects been by Gartner’s analysts, meaning its dynamics could be very different to an organic marketplace.

It is clear industry analysts are making their mark on the digital future in ways most commentators have yet to fully realise. What is most remarkable is not only how quickly these firms have been able to establish influence over markets and tech vendors, but on what this power appears to rest.

The digital economy is being shaped not simply by the supply and demand of traditional market economics. But it’s also being driven by — as one former analyst recently suggested to me — what needs to be done to keep industry analysts ‘in the game.’

Headline image credit: Facebook Connections by mikecogh. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Peter Johnston

    Using Gartner to judge what is coming is like driving using your rear view mirror. The Bell curve shows why. In the early stages, there are hosts of companies doing ground breaking work. It is only in the Tornado (consolidation) phase that they come to Gartner’s attention.Often it then persists right down the ski-slope – Business intelligence is still seen as a sector when it was overtaken by datascience a decade ago. 2nd problem is that it pulls together in a quadrant what are really very different technologies, methodologies and outlooks. It does remain the crutch for sheep who can only choose what is popular, rather than what is good.

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