THE BLOG
11/30/2015 05:45 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2016

House of Carts: The Inside Truth About Power, Influence, and Digital Transformation

The world of ecommerce is rapidly changing. Marketing technology is colliding head-on with digital commerce to create new "experience" platforms. In the physical world, retail stores don't exist in isolation anymore now that mobile has invaded every aspect of consumerism. And everyone seems pretty confused about the whole Internet of Things.

In the boardroom, technological change is wreaking havoc on strategies and business models, giving rise to new phrases like "Ubered" to describe how your business is being attacked by competitors using new technologies in ways you didn't foresee (but probably should have).

Adapting and thriving in this new environment means planning wide-ranging changes to your org structure, leadership, business strategies, and technology platforms. You must out-maneuver, out-wit, and out-Uber your competitors as a means just to survive. It's either sink or swim. And as the protagonist from House of Cards Frank Underwood would say, treading water is the same as drowning, so staying where you are isn't a viable option.

As difficult as this is already, it is made worse by what I call the "House of Carts". Vendors, tradeshows, analysts, and other inside players make it difficult for companies to get objective information to help them move forward with digital strategies. But as Frank Underwood would say, if you don't like how the table is set, turn over the table.

I've spent more than two decades in the technology industry, and I've seen how the table is set. The deck is stacked against you and the house likes to win. To that end, here are the dynamics of the House of Carts, and what you can do to ensure that your own interests come first when planning your next digital transformation project:

Vendors
These are software and hardware vendors who have a product or service to sell. They have a vested interest in selling to you regardless of what you actually need. Sure, they might offer you white papers and other useful content that seems to talk to your needs and empathize with your business challenges. But their mission is to convince you to buy their stuff. They are at center of the world - not you. Remember this at all times.

Tradeshows
Industry events and tradeshows continue to be popular, and are attended by tens of thousands of business executives and technologists. There's a now tradeshow for every industry and every type of business. But tradeshows are really the hunter becoming the hunted. Tradeshow exhibit floors are filled with vendors plying their wares.

You might think that the show's panel sessions offer safe-haven. You'd be wrong. These sessions are often sponsored by vendors. Most of the "messaging" you're likely to hear at these shows are from companies who have paid the most money to the show organizers. There are a lot of good vendors who won't even be at the show. The truth is that the big vendors go all-in at these shows, and so your options are severely narrowed. Tradeshows are an illusion of choice.

Analysts
If you work for a large company that can afford to shell out the min $60,000 or so per year, research analysts can be useful but they also have limited bandwidth so they only analyze a subset of the market and cater to the enterprise. This isn't useful if you work for a small- to medium-sized business.

Compounding this is the thorny issue of credibility. Most of the big research firms steadfastly insist that their work is squeaky clean and not influenced by vendors. But how true is this in practice? Frank Underwood would say that "when money is coming your way, you don't ask questions."

So how much influence do vendors have with these types of analysts, given that most of them are also paying customers? It's not uncommon for analysts to write custom "commissioned" research that is paid for by vendors. And while commissioned research is usually identified as such, this pay-to-play model is an ethical dilemma that has dogged research firms for decades.

Questions linger outside of commissioned research, too. For in-house reports, the analysts will talk to vendors and customers about a product but rarely test the actual product themselves, so there's no hands-on evaluation without the carefully scripted tour offered by the vendor. Analysts can be less than forthcoming about the structure of their relationships with vendors.

Don't get me wrong. There are some great analysts out there doing amazing work, and many of them aren't shy when it comes to slamming vendors who don't perform well in assessments. But even the perception of bias can cut deep. As Frank Underwood would say, "there's no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth."

Consultants/Systems Integrators/Digital Agencies
There are a wide variety of consultants and integrators out there, but you have to be careful. Many of these types of firms are tied to vendors. It's standard practice in the industry for some players to get "kickbacks" from vendors that they recommend, not unlike financial analysts who receive "trailer fees" from fund companies that sell you units in a mutual fund. They also get fed a lot of professional services from vendors, so they are hesitant to bite the hand that feeds them.

For most companies, I suggest starting with a small boutique consultancy. The key is to find one that is independent and not tied to any specific vendor. This way, you are assured that the information you are receiving (and paying for) puts your needs at the center. If they take money from vendors, you need to ask them to be transparent about it. As Frank Underwood would say, you can't purchase loyalty.

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Matt is co-founder and managing partner of Edgacent (http://www.edgacent.com), and ecommerce advisory firm. With a career spanning 20+ years, Matt is a consummate thought leader in the areas of digital marketing, experience-driven commerce, commerce strategy, marketing, and business development. His unique insights on how executives can build digitally-enhanced experiences that unlock new value have been featured in TechCrunch, CMSWire, Huffington Post, Internet Retailer, Get Elastic ecommerce blog, Retail Online Integration, and Chain Store Age.

Matt is also a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit, having presented at Adobe Summit, Enterprise World, Digital Entertainment World, Luxury Interactive, Digital Hollywood, and others.

He has helped grow revenue and market companies such as Elastic Path, Crystal Decisions (now SAP), Apparent Networks, and Meridex, and also served on the board of directors for Active State, 90 Degree Software, ACETECH, and Inetco Systems. Matt holds a Bachelor of Business Administration and Psychology from Simon Fraser University.