Strategy's Limits: A chat with Ernest von Simson

The longtime IT consultant and industry observer talks about his new book

By , IDG News Service |  Business

The research the group wanted done sent von Simson and Seligman into the orbit of the upper echelon of IT companies, generating nearly 100 reports by the time they sold their company to Gartner in 1999. Along the way, as the book's public relations describes it, The Research Board became "the quietly powerful think tank that observed, shaped, and guided the development of the computer industry."

Von Simson laughs at the suggestion that such a description sounds shadowy. The business model was always for a "selective view," he says. "It wasn't that we were so snotty," he says of the built-in exclusivity. But from the outset, they decreed "no vendors" and they "tried to stay away from CIOs who were figureheads in organizations," seeking out instead those who actually are change agents, charged with steering their companies through the turbulent, white-water ways of the IT stream. "Very large companies had a lot to say to each other because of scale rather than sector. ... Our model always was that you had to be able to sit around a table -- that's a real size limiter," he says.

He and Seligman came to know -- and admire, as is clear from the book -- the leadership "giants" of that era. Besides the "big five" who emerged in the 1990s, the book's preface lists many others, including Eric Schmidt, although the years spanned by the book are when he was at Sun, Novell and other companies, before becoming Google CEO in March 2001.

Von Simson is most interested in Google from an enterprise perspective, which in addition to cloud computing now includes Android. The recent flap over Google's operation in China was of more interest to von Simson from the cybersecurity perspective, a current top-priority research topic. That's not an area von Simson would have gotten into, he says, but the business model at Ostriker von Simson, where he and Seligman are the senior partners, continues that of The Research Board's so that the companies they advise guide the research choices.

His current research is reminding him that "technology is so complicated and clever. Secondly, it's really forcing me to ask what is secret." The work takes him around a circle within his career -- he was a U.S. Navy crypto officer just before Vietnam exploded.

Although von Simson writes eloquently of the havoc disruptive technologies can wreak and the need for companies to be prepared and willing to change, he isn't much interested in social networking.

"No, I hate it," he says when asked if he likes Facebook. "I just find the whole thing so banal." He does have a Facebook page he set up a couple of years ago because he wanted to experience it. He logs on every couple of months and jokes that his "friends" -- including his granddaughter, who is keen on Facebook -- are likely to get the sorts of messages from Facebook telling them, "do you know that Ernest von Simson has too few friends."

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