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The state of crowdsourcing

In February TBR virtually attended the Global Technology & Business Services Council’s Global Series: Open Talent conference and heard from leaders across the technology and crowdsourcing industries about emerging themes and trends. While it is not a new phenomenon, crowdsourcing is becoming a compelling delivery model in the IT services space as enterprises increasingly embrace remote services during the pandemic and seek out new ways to fill skills gaps, drive cost savings and accelerate engagement turnaround time. Platform-based crowdsourcing companies such as Topcoder and Freelancer.com, which TBR heard from during the conference, are rapidly expanding their communities of technology-oriented freelancers and driving new use cases with large enterprises that would have traditionally gone to IT service vendors. In TBR’s view, vendors that are not embracing this shift stand to lose the most. At the same time, we question whether those that bring this model to market are really positioned to gain much.

Existential threat or just a piece of the puzzle?

Now more than ever, crowdsourcing and open talent models are proving to be significant disruptors in how services are delivered, and technology appears to be an area that can benefit the most from this trend. Prior to the Global Technology & Business Services Council (GT&BSC) event, our understanding was that organizations engaged with the aforementioned crowdsourcing platforms mostly around the ability to tap large pools of talent much faster and cheaper, but largely for low-value, task-oriented services. To our surprise, during the event TBR learned about use cases in which Fortune 500 companies and renowned research institutions turned to “the crowd” for sophisticated software and data services, which led to significant improvements in speed, cost and even quality. For instance, a coalition between several enterprises and academic institutions such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) opened up a project to the Topcoder community around the optimization of a DNA sequencing algorithm, with the goal of surpassing what had been regarded as an “impossible” threshold. Dozens of submissions crossed the threshold within 24 hours. At first glance, the use of these platforms for high-value services poses a threat to IT services vendors, but TBR notes some caveats.

White-labeling labor

It is necessary to point out that the majority of IT services vendors’ activities in the crowdsourcing space happened pre-pandemic. For example, Wipro (NYSE: WIT) made a splash in the industry when it acquired Topcoder in 2016. And in the years following this, other vendors such as DXC Technology (NYSE: DXC) and Deloitte pursued partnerships that enabled the vendors to launch crowdsourcing services by tapping into Topcoder’s labor ecosystem. First, this distorts the image of crowdsourcing platforms as competition and instead reflects a more symbiotic relationship. Second, while Wipro might be able to take a small commission on engagements done through Topcoder, it lacks a significant competitive advantage over peers that partner with it or other similar platforms.

Security and trust

Soliciting bids from unknown global technologists presents obvious risks. This model is not suited for workloads involving sensitive data and therefore is not gaining the same traction in industries such as financial services or healthcare, where data security and privacy are top concerns. IT services vendors that cater to this clientele will be much more capable of steering clients away from crowdsourcing services and commanding profitable revenues. Similarly, many firms’ value propositions revolve around the reputation of the company and its quality of services, helping them garner more trust-based relationships. Clients seeking this level of service will largely be uninterested in crowdsourcing. This concern will also put pressure on services providers that partner with crowdsourcing platforms, as well as the platforms themselves, to establish guardrails against potential leaks or security breaches, but it remains no easy task to vet millions of global freelancers.   

Bottom line

These platforms are intended to optimize costs and speed. While IT services vendors likely do not want to miss out on any opportunities to engage with potential clients, partnering with a crowdsourcing provider and delivering the cheapest possible services will limit margin growth. Instead, we see opportunities for vendors to embed this open talent model into their organizations to improve utilization and more efficiently deploy staff. We learned during the GT&BSC event, for example, that Deloitte partnered with Freelancer.com in 2019 to develop an internal marketplace for Deloitte’s employees to join open projects within the firm and integrated the solution into the Freelancer.com ecosystem so Deloitte could extend its pool of external resources if needed.

What the future holds

If anything has stood out during the pandemic, it is that incumbents in every industry must be prepared to quickly pivot and adjust to new and nontraditional ways of doing business. In the IT services space, TBR believes disruptions such as the gig economy and crowdsourcing pose the biggest threat to management consulting firms, where generational and technology shifts are creating instances in which enterprises may opt to collect third-party opinions and advice through these types of platforms instead of via expensive consultancies, which can be as enigmatic as unidentified, crowdsourced respondents. In general, IT services vendors that have established pathways into this type of model will benefit from bringing new logos into account ecosystems, which will provide opportunities downstream to upsell higher-value services. We anticipate crowdsourcing will continue to play a supplementary, but necessary, role in IT services as a way for companies to easily scale services at the expense of security and margins. But much like organizations’ hesitation to fully embrace the cloud for their IT ecosystems, taking a hybrid approach to “the crowd” will likely remain the preferred method for most enterprises to minimize risk while still reaping the benefits of scalability and speed that the crowdsourcing model offers.

TBR’s Professional Services practice will continue to monitor the trends outlined above and provide analysis across our syndicated vendor reports and benchmarks, notably the IT Services Vendor Benchmark and Global Delivery Benchmark. The next iterations of these two products, which synthesize TBR’s in-depth analysis and data across covered vendors, are set to publish in April.

Following a year of acquisitions, VMware integrates across the technology stack to support customer transformations

TBR perspective

Gone are the days of the legacy virtualization giant that only serviced customers in their data centers. Among the key takeaways from VMworld 2020 was that VMware is rapidly evolving to meet clients wherever they wish to consume their data, whether that is across multiple clouds, in the core data center or at the edge. The slew of new or updated cloud, edge, desktop and security offerings announced at VMworld are the result of the company’s ongoing acquisition spree as well as strategic partnerships with some of the industry’s most powerful players. However, VMware cementing its “Any App, Any Cloud, Any Device” mantra was only half of the VMworld story, as the company also unveiled innovations that are completely new for the company, including full-stack automation, enterprise AI and support for graphics processing unit (GPU) technology. Specifically, VMware’s groundbreaking partnership expansion with NVIDIA and proposed acquisition of SaltStack suggest the infrastructure specialist is trying to help clients look up the technology stack, where enterprise value is ultimately created. This proposition largely aligns with VMware’s recent business model shift — in which Subscription & SaaS revenue is starting to outweigh traditional license revenues from both a volume and growth perspective — to capture enterprise mindshare. Recurring business has been led by acquisitions, and given the company’s success targeting niche players and integrating them across all layers of the technology stack, future acquisitions in areas like containers, security, automation and cloud management cannot be ruled out. As Gelsinger likes to say, “vSphere is the new VCF” and “Kubernetes is the new Java.” VMware’s ability to unify and sell an underlying cloud-ready platform with additional modern application development products and services will be key to the vendor’s positioning as a partner working alongside customers’ transformations.

As COVID-19 continues to take its toll, VMware (NYSE: VMW) hosted its annual VMworld event virtually. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger kicked off the event with a keynote session discussing the broad role technology plays in everyday life, a theme that particularly resonates in the middle of a pandemic. The three-day event offered breakout sessions, product demos and customer success stories at each level of VMware’s digital transformation-enabling strategy.

IoT Customer Spotlight: Colfax survived the stormy seas of IoT after righting its ship, and its story can serve as a navigational aid for peers still caught in the squall

Colfax is an industrial conglomerate with two operating companies under it, ESAB and Howden. ESAB produces equipment and filler metals for most welding and cutting applications, and Howden delivers precision air and gas handling equipment for numerous industrial applications. Both are worldwide industrial suppliers with multiple manufacturing plants and globally distributed support apparatus.

I learned about the conglomerate during a PTC customer panel at PTC’s LiveWorx 2018, where Colfax was represented by Ryan Cahalane, the company’s vice president of digital growth. I found his story, among others, to be an intriguing view into the development and deployment of Internet of Things (IoT) applications by an actual customer of vendor IoT solutions. Often, the real stories get lost in the marketing morass of the larger IT and operational technology (OT) companies pushing solutions. Cahalane and I connected over our thoughts on the importance of solving “the business problem” (and our intriguingly similar last names), and I took the opportunity to learn about Colfax as a customer (one could argue it could increasingly be placed as an ISV) and its experience implementing IoT.

Colfax began its journey like many of its peers: IoT was the buzz, and the company tried to react as fast as it could. Like many manufacturers or those in heavy industry, Colfax’s leadership kicked around the idea of harnessing IoT to drive new growth and differentiate from peers in a competitive marketplace, primarily via new IoT-enhanced products or digitally enabled service offerings. However, Colfax ran into challenges.

Internally, Colfax experienced the same roadblocks that plague most companies investigating IoT, especially federated ones like itself:

  • Colfax had a sizeable number of people working on IoT, but the company lacked communication and alignment across the various business units and initiatives.
  • Plenty of good ideas were being developed via shadow IT, but the company lacked cohesion and developments were technology-focused — not guided by business problems. This failed to differentiate the company, and Colfax’s messaging got lost in a crowded market.
  • Colfax initially tried to go it alone with a do-all solution, but that led to generic offerings that were not best-in-class, and handling all of the components, including design and management, was difficult for a diverse, distributed organization.

Externally, the company faced the usual challenges of the market. Its customers were interested in IoT, but Colfax found itself in proof-of-concept limbo as customers continually kicked the tires on IoT but never walked away with a key in hand. Cahalane explained that Colfax had trouble navigating customer cultures, such as garnering agreement from line-of-business, OT and IT managers from a technology viewpoint, and ultimately proving ROI for its digital solutions, from a business viewpoint, to C-level executives.

Many companies have shared the same struggles, and are now washing out, including behemoths such as General Electric, indicating no company is safe from the volatile and hypercompetitive IoT market. Colfax has persevered, however, because the company was quick to perceive the changing market dynamics. Here are my takeaways from my conversation with Cahalane around the company’s pivot:

  • I’ll begin with something that Cahalane, being humble, didn’t share with me but that I believe was an important step for Colfax: The company established Cahalane’s position of digital growth VP to coordinate IoT initiatives across the company and foster knowledge sharing, ultimately helping Colfax organize for IoT. Instead of offering a number of distributed, unfocused and perhaps competing IoT initiatives, Colfax, with Cahalane’s help, is focusing and acting on key opportunities.
  • What are those key opportunities? Colfax’s competitors would certainly like to know! Cahalane did share, however, the company’s new thought process for developing them: focus on the business challenges of its customers and narrow them down to what Colfax can best service with its technology and expertise. It’s no longer about developing fancy new technology and telling customers why they need it. It’s about listening to customers and solving their problems.
  • Colfax is going to market with the technology discussion on the back burner. Instead, the company is approaching customers with a business-problem-solving outlook, fishing for the all-important CEO buy-in and leaving the technology details to be sorted out later. As Cahalane stated, “We are staying very focused on the business message, the real value that you get from the solution. The tech is just a vehicle. A business message allows us to really spend time on bringing our knowledge to more customers. The customers finally see how it all fits together. It’s in their language.”
  • Cahalane noted that companies, such as Colfax in its early days, are often afraid of working with vendors or partners. Cooperation and coopetition among partners or working with a new vendor can be intimidating when a company knows it’s on the verge of a vertical breakthrough or solving the next use case, causing companies to keep their cards close to their vest. Laying the cards on the table and sharing technology, techniques, and customer relationships or entry points is a daunting step. Cahalane emphasized how Colfax had to shift its thinking from “How do we compete?” or “How do we keep this in-house to avoid paying for technology?” to “How could [a partner or new vendor] help?” or “How can they accelerate our goals?” Using the technology, expertise and capacity of Microsoft, OSIsoft and PTC now allows Colfax to focus on the solution components it knows best and to layer them on best-in-class platforms and tool kits provided by its vendors. This approach not only provides customer validation — for example, attaching to a well-known brand such as Microsoft for IaaS makes customers more comfortable — but also spreads out development and management. Instead of trying to support the entire load, which would be a challenge for an organization of Colfax’s size and structure, the company relies on its partners and vendors to take responsibility for their own components.
  • Finally, Cahalane emphasized the need for companies such as Colfax to remain agile in the quickly moving and erratic IoT-enhanced products market. The company constantly looks for acquisition candidates that can not only increase its expertise in its core digital initiatives and target verticals but also deliver new business models.

What is next for Colfax? Cahalane noted that there is still a lot of work for Colfax and its partners to do to develop, and educate customers about the power of data. This means not only tying data together inside one organization but also sharing data across organizations. For example, Colfax’s welding solutions could be used by customers to apply predictive and prescriptive analytics to real-time operational data to have alerts sent to supplies manufacturers for automatic resupply. Cahalane also hinted that Colfax sees the importance of shifting toward prepackaged solutions, which reduce customization costs and complexity and are built around proven ROI, to induce more customers to buy Colfax IoT solutions.

That’s the Colfax story. Why is it important? Not only does it validate concepts we have been sharing since we began our IoT coverage, but more importantly, it serves as an example to companies similar to Colfax across all verticals that may still be spinning their wheels with IoT. As Cahalane explained, true IoT success stories can be few and far between, with numerous IoT projects stuck in the mud due to vagueness, overambition, immature IoT, or lack of organization or maturity among vendors and customers to apply IoT.

However, TBR’s survey work and the insight gained from my discussion with Cahalane, among others, suggest that many projects that start with a specific business challenge, are smaller in scale or divided into digestible parts, and are led and received by companies mature in IoT, are working and delivering actual IoT revenue. TBR believes vendors and customers should take lessons from companies such as Colfax: focus on the business message, organize your business’s digital and IoT efforts around key opportunities, and use vendor partners to fill gaps while focusing initiatives around core strengths. While Colfax, as Cahalane noted, isn’t gaining explosive IoT revenue, TBR believes it’s certainly on the right path.

‘Popcorn market’ and ‘shrink-wrapped’ IoT: TBR gets creative with industry terms

Observers of emerging tech trends often seek the “hockey stick” moment, or that period when the market takes off following an explosion of activity. However, as TBR Principal Analyst Ezra Gottheil explains in his special report ‘Shrink-wrapped’ IoT will drive accelerating growth; an explosion of activity, or huge moment of growth, will likely never occur in the overall commercial IoT market. Gottheil writes:

Each IoT [Internet of Things] solution comes to market at a different time, meaning that as more packaged solutions become available and as some experience rapid growth, the total growth accelerates. The IoT market has been described as a “popcorn” market, in which each submarket “pops” at its own pace — some smaller markets grow explosively, but the total market (the “pot of popcorn”) expands more uniformly.

A popcorn market leads to slowly accelerating overall growth, generating frustration for companies that had anticipated rapid adoption. This is especially true in the IoT market for horizontal IT companies such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Dell EMC that are finding themselves selling into new markets, including product development, operational technology (OT) and data science organizations, instead of traditional IT department constituencies. Gottheil notes that for organizations that are seeking to benefit from IoT, the key to accelerating growth is developing packaged “off the shelf” — or “shrink-wrapped” — IoT solutions. The increased availability of IoT solutions targeting specific use cases and business processes in industry subverticals will be key to generating IoT-driven vendor revenue for the foreseeable future.