Industry Technology Analyst Firm: Jazz Band or Symphony Orchestra?

Would you compare an industry technology analyst firm to a symphony orchestra or jazz band?

Let’s focus this a bit more: you have been asked to join an industry (pick the vertical domain of your choice) technology analyst firm. Would you expect this analyst firm to generate IP (intellectual capital) and be more successful competing if it resembled a symphony orchestra or a jazz band?

Both have talented musicians; both have a leader of some flavor; both mandate that the musicians constantly practice to maintain their skills. Musicians of either entity must be respected as experts with their instruments. Switching to the analyst world, the onus is on both the analysts and the analyst firm to ensure that the analysts recieve the training they need or attend relevant conferences to maintain and build their level of expertise.

Both types of musical entities follow a musical score although in different ways. Symphony musicians have the score in front of them and a conductor they follow for guidance of pace and intensity. Jazz musicians rarely, if ever, have a musical score in front of them. They all “know” the music and are guided lightly by a leader who directs the  individual members as to the order of their solos, duets or other combinations within the larger group.

Similarly to the symphony orchestra, jazz musicians select the songs they will be playing for their audience during their rehearsals.  And in the analyst world, analysts know the key themes or issues they will be generating their IP about before their fiscal year begins. 

Two areas where jazz musicians differ from their symphonic counterparts are freedom to experiment and having the ability to blend their sounds together in unanticipated ways in real-time. Jazz musicians are expected to experiment with variations around themes they express with their instruments. They are also expected to blend their sounds together in real-time and usually (in what seems to be to the audience) unexpected ways with other members of the ensemble. (Yes, there are musicians who play their own cadenzas as soloists with symphony orchestras but I would submit they do not have anywhere near the degree of freedom jazz musicians do.)

Another area where jazz musicians differ from their symphonic counterparts is that jazz musicians, sensing their audience, can and do take liberties with new selections not identified during their rehearsals. They can do this because they have a broad library of music and musical explorations in their knowledge set and, as importantly, they know how to blend their sounds together to get the best outcome possible for their audience.

Similarly, analysts must be able to generate IP about new events or issues that have either reached the radar screen of their clients or that are soon-to-emerge on their client’s radar screens. And they must be able to do this even if these issues were not identified for their formal research agenda. Of course, they do have to let the ‘leader’ know so that person can potentially identify other IP streams that might help the new content or that could be helped by the new content.

Because of the differences mentioned above, an analyst firm is more like – or should be more like – a jazz band. Whether I worked for an analyst firm or was a client of an analyst firm, I would want them to be able to experiement around key themes, to blend their skills together and to find new issues that would be impacting me that I didn’t have time to discover myself.

Analysts, like jazz musicians, need an environment that supports their ability to experiment with different perspectives of existing concepts; motivates them to blend their IP or analytic skills together, and permits them to explore new concepts all  in a way that produces a very rich, pleasing, and quite possibly, unanticipated outcome for their clients.

Swing, baby, swing!!

A Few Lessons Learned

I have been fortunate to learn some key lessons from managers and colleagues along my path through the years in the insurance industry, management consulting and industry analysis.

One of the earliest lessons was from my supervisor at AEtna Life & Casualty was CSW or “completed staff work.” After he gave me an assignment and I finished it – or thought that I had finished it – he would look up at me as I was putting it in his in-basket and ask “if it was really completed, was I happy with it, was I sure there wasn’t anything I might have wanted to add?” I almost always kept the paperwork in my hands and took it back to my desk. Later either that day or a few days later I gave him a product that I felt sure met his requirements.

At Arthur D. Little (ADL)  I learned two lessons: one, to always put myself in my customer’s mind. And here I mean more than just wanting to meet our consulting client’s objectives. The main issue is putting myself in the mind of our client’s customers. What should our client be doing to improve their customer’s experience when they did business with that firm? Striving to put the chain of customer’s needs in mind continues to serve me well.

The second lesson at ADL was learning when to declare victory. When in an engagement to say, yes we have accomplished the client’s objectives and take the brush off of the canvas. You might feel this contradicts the first two lessons but it doesn’t. After all, most of our efforts – whatever it is that you and I do – are done in an environment of limited resources (whether time, money, skills, people or some combination). The challenge is to find the optimal solution (and yes, I’m suggesting we think through an Operations Research lens).

The next lesson is also an ongoing one and it applies, in my case as an industry analyst, to think like a VC analyst. No, I don’t mean push to earn as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time, sell out and live on a beach  in Maui. I do mean that my industry analysis will be sharper and deliver better results for my clients the more strategically I approach their situation.

What key lessons have you learned throughout your career?

Published in: on October 10, 2009 at 9:10 am  Comments (1)  
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Viva La Difference

When I was fortunate to be asked to launch and lead the insurance advisory service at Financial Insights (an IDC Company) I had the opportunity to meet quite a few of the Insights and IDC analysts. But throughout my early years there seemed to be a confluence of ‘analyst’ and ‘researcher.’ IDC does both, of course, but I could feel there was a difference between the two but just couldn’t articulate what the difference was. (When I began as an analyst in the late 1990s at The Meta Group I didn’t feel that tension between the roles.)

Then one day I had lunch with my mentor from Arthur D. Little. While munching – probably on a salad of some type – I told him about my conundrum. We talked about my trouble differentiating between ‘analyst’ and ‘researcher’ and he suggested what he saw as the difference.

He was right. To capture the essence of the difference:

  • The researcher usually begins his/her investigation with a hypothesis. Then gathers the necessary data to test the hypothesis, does the analysis and reaches a conclusion about the correctness of the hypothesis.
  • The analyst may or may not begin with a hypothesis. If he or she has one, they then gathers as much of the data as they can and does the analysis. But – and here is the difference – while the analyst may or may not prove the correctness of the hypothesis, the analyst jumps 2, 3 or 5 years in the future. That jump is fueled by experience in the domain space.

My ADL mentor reminded me that it is the jump or leap that clients are paying for when they call an analyst.

From my perspective, it is that jump – much more than merely stating what the data say – that makes being an analyst significantly more fun than being a researcher.

What do you think?

Published in: on June 20, 2009 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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