The Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Folly of Keeping Technology Adoption Secret

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There are very few businesses today – maybe none – that are not technology customers. Every business large and small has made decisions about what technologies to use. Whether that’s buying a few Apple laptops for a kindergarten or ten thousand Linux based servers from an ODM in Taiwan for a service provider, businesses choose technologies constantly.

But while the individual decisions themselves may vary, the one thing most businesses – the larger ones, anyway – have in common is that said decisions must be kept secret. Large enterprises are famously secretive about their technology stacks. The vendors that work with them are prohibitied, typically contractually, from disclosing that a given enterprise is, in fact, a customer of theirs.

Which is ironic given that this usage is something of an open secret. As anyone who’s been briefed by a vendor is aware, the one thing that is in every briefing deck is a slide full of customer logos. While the slides used with the press may only contain the customer logos that are allowed to be there, the ones used with analysts frequently contain all the relevant customers, public or private. The secret usage history is safe, then, only from the press and from the businesses themselves.

There are many reasons for this practice. Some customers, such as those in government, are not allowed to disclose whether someone’s a customer for fear of appearing to endorse a given vendor. Other customers withhold their asset – the right to use their name publically – in search of an economic return; price discounts, more lenient licensing terms or other similar perks. And still others believe that their technology selection constitutes a competitive advantage.

It seems increasingly clear, however, that whatever the expected returns, the costs of this practice outweigh them. Here are three reasons to consider dropping the policy of secrecy regarding technology usage.

It Helps With Recruiting

It’s no secret that the market for development talent is historically tight. Recruitment, therefore, is both a challenge and – for those that identify inefficiencies – a potential competitive advantage. Today, your average Fortune 500 organization is, or at least aspires to be, a black box. Words like “agile” and “innovative” are tossed around, but there’s very little discussion of what actually goes on and what is actually used.

In this seller’s market, however, developers are generally free to pick and choose opportunities based on the technologies that they want to work with. If they want to learn and work with something new and interesting like Nginx, for example, they’re likely to find an opportunity to do so.

If ten businesses are using Nginx, then, but nine keep that a secret while one is public about that usage, which has the best chance at recruiting said developer?

Secrets Cost Money

One of the common justifications for keeping usage information confidential are the commercial returns mentioned above; pricing discounts and the like in return for the right disclose. The question businesses should be asking, however, is what the costs are to this approach.

As in the prisoner’s dilemma, enterprises’ refusal to cooperate with one another with the free exchange of information hurts everyone involved. Tyicallly, the only party that enterprises freely disclose usage to are industry analysts. These analysts then happily aggregate and anonymize this previously private information, then sell it back to the businesses that could have shared it freely with each other. Because each business jealously guards information about its technology selection, then, it is compelled to pay for the secrets that it and its counterparts are keeping.

It’s Not a Competitive Advantage

Unless you’re Google or Facebook, technology selection is unlikely to be a competitive advantage. In a world full of webinars and whitepapers, the days of asymmetrical technology adoption are, for all intents and purposes, over. The competitive edge is likely to derive instead from people.

Access to and awareness of Hadoop, for example, is generally symmetrical within a given industry. Access to resources with the business knowledge to understand what questions to ask and the technical skills to answer them, however, is very uneven. As we’ve seen, keeping technology investments private may negatively impacting recruiting. By not disclosing Hadoop usage, then, enterprises are effectively preserving a non-existent competitive advantage at the expense of the one thing that could improve their businesses: better people.

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