Are Software Vendors Messing with Your Head? (The Art of Reading White Papers)

  • Written By: David Clark
  • Published On: August 24 2007

Imagine that you're at the research stage of the selection process. You're looking to get a handle on the scope of the project ahead of you and an idea of potential solutions and approaches. How are you going to do this?

Or maybe you've already reached the shortlist stage of your software selection project, and you're looking for collateral information on the vendors in order to get a sense of their overall vision, their development road maps, and their commitment to clients. How are you going to track down this information?

You start browsing, downloading, and reading white papers. That's how.

There's nothing simple about enterprise software selection. If you were going to write a history of corporate software purchases, you'd have whole chapters devoted to body bags. As in career body bags. Lots of them. And the vast majority of those bodies were no dummies.

There are all kinds of ways for the software selection process to go wrong (lack of product information, lack of user training and buy-in, lack of backing from top management, and—all too often—lack of time).

All projects have their snafus, screwups, and setbacks. The last thing you need is to get bogged down in marketing collateral as you conduct your research.

Which brings us back to white papers.

What's a White Paper? No, Really

A white paper is a document that comprehensively discusses a technology or product, and often deals with particular problems that many companies may be facing.

That's the idea, anyway. It's also a way for software vendors to pitch a product to prospective customers.

Try this experiment: go to Perform a search on the keyword phrases “coder's idea of a joke,” “financial sinkhole,” or “buy this and your career will rocket straight down the corporate ladder.”

The search engine will rebuke you with a rather startled “no documents matched the query” message.

Duh. Obviously no vendor is going to slam its own product. Software vendors invest tens of thousands of dollars to produce a single white paper—not only to provide you with valuable information, but also to promote their products, display their thought leadership, and gain precious brand exposure.

And naturally, they're going to throw around a bunch of feel-good apple-pie words, such as “scalable,” “cutting edge,” and “synergy.”

We'll get to the “Top 10 White Paper Buzzwords” in a bit, but first, consider these words of caution: Just because a vendor produces a polished, glitzy white paper doesn't mean its product is similarly polished. All it means is that the vendor has an accomplished marketing department, whose mantra is “We've got the cure. Now all we need to do is hype the disease.” Your challenge is to go beyond the hype and understand not only the disease and cure, but also the symptoms, treatment side effects, alternative approaches, and the potential for relapse.

Doctor, It Hurts When I Do This

Full disclosure: I read, evaluate, and publish white papers for a living. On average, fifty white papers cross my desk every week. And out of fifty, at least forty of them will inform you that today's business climate is increasingly competitive—probably on the first page. Try the search tool. You'll see.

Think about that for a second. Increasingly competitive? Compared to what? If we were really living in an economic climate that increased in competitive complexity every time a vendor said it did, we'd all have perished long ago in a grand fusion of missed opportunities and gravitational impossibilities.

You're behind the business curve, is what they're trying to tell you. And the solution to that is to get ahead of the technology curve. Make perfect sense? I didn't think so.

However, you may be seeking a software solution for reasons that have nothing to do with the so-called feverish pace of business. Maybe you need to replace your in-house-developed application. Or maybe the development of new business processes is driving the adoption of a new system.

Whatever the case, you need to sort the facts from the guff, and get the information you need to make an informed software selection.

That's why I'm presenting you with a handy buzzword translator. You may wish to refer to it the next time you read a white paper.

Top 10 White Paper Buzzwords

#10: competitive advantage

How vendors use it
Vendors throw this phrase around like rice at a wedding. However, also like rice at a wedding, it hurts when you get it in your eyes.

Why you should point and laugh
Technology alone won't generate a competitive advantage. That's your job. If a new enterprise system can help, great. But there's no such thing as a magic bullet.

#9: full-featured

How vendors use it
A full-featured software application is, well, full of features, right? Isn't that like a real estate agent trying to sell you a full-roofed house?

No. See below.

When you should run for cover
It's conceivable that the enterprise software products on your selection shortlist have all the features and functions you require, straight out of the box. In which case, they can justifiably be described as full-featured. However, a) that's unlikely and b) full-featured doesn't mean “zero configuration”—configuration being one of the most vital steps of any software implementation, and a step that “full-featured” glibly glosses over.

Furthermore, your business model might not tolerate “software bloat” very well. If a software product is being positioned as a full-featured application, you may wish to consider whether it really addresses your needs.

#8: dynamic IT marketplace

Why vendors use it
This term is tacit acknowledgement that you are faced with a rich and volatile landscape of technology choices.

Why you should nod politely and back away
“Dynamic IT marketplace” is also industry code for “there are so many mergers, acquisitions, and busts in this industry that I have no idea who's signing my next paycheck.” Be smart. Ensure that any software purchase contract you sign includes a road map for future maintenance, service, and development.

#7: superior functionality

Superior to what? The beta version? Move along, nothing to see here.

#6: user-friendly

Why vendors use it
Some user, somewhere, experienced a warm fuzzy feeling on first sight of the graphical user interface (GUI).

Why they shouldn't
When vendors use this term, they may not be thinking of “Cranky McSnarlPants” over in your human resources (HR) department—you know, the one who kicks up a snit storm every time you try something new, user-friendly or not.

Two words for you: user buy-in. Get it. “User-friendly” is a promise, not a quality.

#5: scalability

How vendors use it
“This software application scales effortlessly.”

Why you should get some hard numbers from the vendor
If your strategic plans include dramatic growth, you may want to ask the vendor to provide synonyms for the word “effortlessly.” Usually, the words “server acquisition” will figure prominently, by which time you've figured out that “effortlessly” does not mean “inexpensively.”

#4: flexibility

How vendors use it
“Flexible systems.”

Why you should stay the course
My cat is flexible. I'm not. Between these two extremes there are software applications. Flexible is a relative term, and you may need more of it than the vendor can deliver. Reserve judgment until you've conducted a thorough demo and analysis of the product's real-world capabilities.

#3: holistic

How vendors use it
Holistic = Good.

Why you and the software vendor should have a serious meditation together
A man walks into a Zen pizza parlor. “Hey pal,” he says, “make me one with everything.”

That joke is about as relevant to the software selection process as the word “holistic” is in marketing collateral. Usually used in reference to the ability of enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications to link all company processes in a unified system, holistic is one of those plastic words that becomes more impressive the more it's used, especially if you put the word paradigm next to it. That doesn't mean it's substantive.

Allow me this pet peeve. The words you want to see instead are “all company processes” near the word “integrated,” if that's the kind of package you're looking to purchase.

#2: cutting-edge

Why vendors use it
Because. Just because.

Why you should get all edgy
“Cutting edge” is a very clever way to say “New! Possibly improved! And certainly untested!” Don't go there.

Yes, yes, there may be some cases where a company absolutely needs a feature that has only just been developed. But you should proceed with caution.

#1: synergy

Why vendors use it
Because it makes you feel warm all over. Doesn't it? Isn't it good to know we're all one happy family?

Why you should get your snark on
Merriam-Webster defines synergy as “a mutually advantageous conjunction … of distinct business participants or elements.” That's quite a mouthful. If you parse it and plug it into the software selection context, it generally means that software modules are going to cooperate quite nicely, thank you very much. Which is, uh, what you thought you were going to pay for in the first place. Synergy is not a bonus feature.

So … White Papers = Doubleplusungood?


Strip away the marketing fluff with my handy buzzword translator, and you'll see the content as it should have been—the draft that got sent to the marketing department, and died a horrible lingering death.

White papers can provide invaluable insight into business problems and solutions. They often represent months of intense research by industry experts and analysts. A white paper should contain useful information to help you as you go forward in your software evaluation.

White papers should promote credibility by approaching a problem with objective analysis, and uncovering numerous approaches to this problem. It should then make a strong argument for the solution it presents, allowing you to decide based on the information given. White papers ought to inform, enlighten, and convince you.

And the best ones do. Have a look at TEC's 25 Most Popular White Papers—they've been selected by your peers. You'll see what I mean.

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