Freeing your IT department from Stackholm Syndrome

I don’t think I’m alone in observing a strange phenomenon that is going on these days with IT. I call it Stackholm Syndrome. Sufferers are IT professionals who feel trapped by their software stack vendors – but have grown so accustomed to their bondage that they feel lost without them.

The idea is that the stack locks you in, with a totalizing embrace of hardware, operating systems, master software license agreements, and most importantly, applications. The bond that exists is made even more constricting by the fact that these enterprise applications bred in the stack are the very core systems of record – the very heart of your enterprise. The 12 to 18-month upgrade cycle is the reality that defines your existence. As much as IT shivers at the thought of a major SAP upgrade, or whines at the complexity of maintaining all the many piece parts of an IBM Websphere integration, or cringes when it comes time to negotiate databases licenses with their friendly pitbull of an Oracle sales person – don’t you dare to take it away from them.

The ties that bind

At a focus group in midtown Manhattan a couple of months ago we brought senior IT executives together and asked them questions about their supplier community. Intriguingly, when asked about IBM, SAP and Oracle, they initially complained about high prices, lock-in and, most tellingly, an inability to respond to business needs with innovative new applications.

But later when I asked if they would consider an alternative, they unanimously came to the defense of their captors. Their world was IBM or SAP or Oracle: Don’t take away my universe. We couldn’t function without them.

Recently I sat in on a vendor pricing workshop at an industry event (the Forrester EA and CIO Forum in Paris, June of 2012) and marveled at the consensus among the IT attendees that they were being systematically gouged by their captors, thanks to new pricing schemes rooted in virtualization (i.e. how many virtual CPUs will you be using). They all spoke of frustration and confusion – and yet, also a sense of inexorable inevitability. What choice did they have? (For a concrete example of what I’m talking about, just follow this revealing thread on Reddit as Sun Microsystems customers discovered the brave new world of life in Oracle. The contributors cite reliability, performance and pain in the pocket book.)

And at the last Gartner IT Symposium in Orlando I attended, analyst emeritus Daryl Plummer complained about how one stack vendor insisted on a second round of license fees if the client moved their application to the cloud. To paraphrase Plummer, that would be the equivalent of going to Best Buy and purchasing a 50-inch plasma TV and having to pay for it again if you moved it from the living room to the den.

Are these “happy” customers? Well, not exactly, but like most forms of co-dependency, the Stackholm Syndrome is a complex relationship that can tolerate contradiction. (Just ask Patty Hearst.)

Give to the stack only what is the stack’s

Certainly, IBM, SAP and Oracle are not terrorist organizations. They are highly successful companies that have made life ever so easy for IT. And the benefits are many: one-stop shopping, all-you-can-eat buffet, a walk-in closet of technology goodies. Just relax, accept the embrace and life gets suddenly very simple. The captors do their best to offer their guests the kind of totalizing ideology that explains away the frustrations of slow innovation cycles as just a fact of life, a minor irritant. So is there hope then for chronic sufferers of Stackholm Syndrome?

Happily, yes there is. It comes with the first step of giving the core systems all the loyalty and respect they deserve for transaction-based functions – but freeing the mind to embrace new approaches to innovation and customer engagement that are not necessarily trapped in (or owned by) the stack.

Here’s a three-step process for breaking free:

Step one: Fire a flare for help. Chip away at the corner of your cell when no one is looking. That is, rapidly deliver small but important solutions that co-exist with the stack but offer faster, iterative improvements that deliver critical business outcomes. These visible outcomes will act as a bright red flare of distress to attract the attention of the business.

Step two: Use the business to negotiate. Get those business executives who answered your flare, and who are tired of waiting 12-18 months for new innovations, to negotiate on your behalf for your liberation. You can still feign love for your stack captors and as you make your escape, just blame the business sponsors since they have the checkbooks.

And finally, step three: Once you are free, do a Spartacus and socialize amongst your slave colleagues. Try encouraging them with a new, radical liberation philosophy of rendering to the stack that which is the stack’s (core transaction systems, annual updates) and rendering to the business the things they deserve. That might mean BYOD, or cloud, or crowdsourced social computing, or using business process management to drive customer engagement, or agile development technologies. The result will mean a new way of working that is adaptive and responsive with much faster differentiation and innovation.

Be brave. Respect the stack, but don’t let it define your world – you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Alan Trefler is founder and chairman and CEO of Pegasystems, which specializes in business process management and customer relationship management solutions. 

Have an idea for a post you’d like to contribute to GigaOm? Click here for our guidelines and contact info.

Photo courtesy ollyy/