The question that frequently arises is: with Google, LinkedIn and Facebook and other online resources at their fingertips, do process control practitioners get any value from subscribing, often at tens of thousands of dollars, to industry analyst services anymore? Clearly, in the IT field, industry analysts seem to still be in demand, with Gartner and Forrester showing steady, albeit incremental, revenue growth.
In the process control arena, it's harder to tell, in that most of the analyst firms are privately held and do not publish audited numbers, or are part of a much larger entity that does not report specific research unit revenues separately. So the debate on the value of analysts versus the Internet is looming large.
With modern social networking tools, particularly LinkedIn with its groups, but also Google with its basic search tools and Google+ and even Facebook, the ability to connect with peers and do research on products, vendors and technology in general is unprecedented. Post an inquiry on any one of the forums related to a topic, and you generally will get anywhere from several to hundreds of responses. For the most part, these responses come from end users who have real-world experience with the specific products and/or vendors. It is hard to beat first-hand information.
On the other hand, the objectiveness and, in some cases, the actual identity of the posters can be questioned. There are numerous cases of suppliers promoting their own products and bashing competitors, as well as disgruntled users trashing suppliers over problems that, in some cases, are of their own making. So while there is plenty of free information out on the Web, the objectivity and value of that information can vary widely.
Analyst firms make the claim that the tested research methodologies they use ensure the information they provide is validated and objective; therefore, it has real value and is worth the tens of thousands they charge for access. They all have some sort of methodology for ranking and evaluating the vendors, products and technologies they cover. On the plus side, most analysts have significant industry experience and have held decision-making positions in either end-user or vendor firms. On the down side, some analysts haven't actually used a specific product or technology recently or, in some cases, ever.
The objectivity claim also needs to be understood in context of the firm versus the analyst. Most analyst firms have strict policies regarding conflict of interest and prohibit analysts from taking positions in or with the firms they cover (as investors or board members) or receiving direct compensation. Many firms, however, will produce research-for-hire pieces that are solely funded by a single vendor, and that leads to an objectivity issue, at least regarding that specific research. But, in general, the analyst firms do not grossly favor companies that subscribe to their services over those that do not. Also analysts themselves may not be overtly biased, but as human beings, they likely fail at being purely objective. If a vendor is constantly incorporating an analyst's research into its product strategy and marketing, building the analyst up to the analyst firm management and making the analyst seem like a "rock star," then human nature says that analyst will favor that vendor over one that promotes a competing analyst's point of view.
So, given the questions about analysts' absolute objectivity versus the uncertainty of the quality of input from social networking sources, why consider analysts? There is one significant reason, and that is access to vendor strategy. Since analysts still are considered significant market influencers, vendors do share strategy and performance information with analysts that they may not share with the general public or even prospective customers. As a buyer, getting a detailed product roadmap may be difficult, since the vendor is concerned about potential contractual issues. Since the analyst firm is not buying specific product, the only risk a vendor has in sharing the roadmap is it may get "dinged about execution" if it fails to deliver against that roadmap. This is not to say vendors won't share the information with prospective buyers. However, the cost of obtaining it may be as much as an analyst subscription, when you consider the cost of labor, legal to negotiate the non-disclosure agreement and, most likely, travel to visit the vendor's headquarters.
So, does it make sense to subscribe to industry research? For most the answer is the classic analyst response: it depends. If you're part of a very large organization and have enough leverage over vendors to get the product strategy information you need and vendor viability due diligence for small suppliers, then the incremental value of an analyst firm might not warrant an ongoing subscription. If you're a small company, the value you'd get from the $20,000+ annual fees analyst firms charge might be spent better elsewhere. Do your due diligence using the social networking tools available today.
For the rest in the middle, the use of an analyst firm as a sanity check, a second opinion, and as a third party with minimal biases to help break ties or influence key decision-makers may well be a good investment. Just remember you get what you pay for and, as with every other purchase, you need to continually reevaluate whether you're deriving the expected benefits from your investment. If nothing else, consider an analyst firm as a form of insurance. It is always nice to be able to say to upper management when you seem to struggle with a project, "Well, AnalystFirm said that vendor XYZ was a leader and had the ability to execute above their competitors." That will probably fly better than, "Well, I Googled them, and nobody said anything bad about them."