Buy Lines: Desperately seeking a standard vocabulary

Steve Charles

We in the federal technology market, in working out our next move, occasionally make time to lift our heads from the task at hand, look around and evaluate just what's hot, what's not, who's up, who's down, where to invest, what to avoid and who's likely to do what next. Simple, standard business questions, but their answers illustrate the market's complexity.

This month we have the 2006 Top 100. Annual rankings such as this provide interesting data points. Comparing this year's rankings to last year's reveals the dynamic nature of the market.

This year, the list has 16 new arrivals. The obverse is that 16 departed, either because of acquisition or declining sales. Four companies experienced triple-digit growth, and three grew by more than 300 percent, while 32 on the list declined, 21 of those by more than 10 percent.

The Top 100 comprises an amazing array of companies operating under somewhat different business models, doing vastly different things for customers that are worlds apart. A characterization as a "government contractor" is the common denominator of these companies, but it does not begin to describe how different these companies are one from the other.

Outsiders often look at lists like this one and make partnering or teaming decisions based on a data point, such as size, rather than more substantive, difficult-to- determine characteristics, such as expertise, focus and capabilities desired by customers.

Just as the Yupik Eskimos have 15 words or phrases to describe snow, we might all be better served by adopting more precise language to describe our expertise, capabilities and the roles we play. In addition to helping in rationalizing this market, we also could use this differentiating language to erect the firewalls necessary to address rising concerns about organizational conflicts of interest as well as perceptions of potential Anti-kickback Act violations.

Do our government customers appreciate the differences between the role a manufacturer can play and that of an integrator? Distributor vs. reseller? Reseller vs. value-added reseller? System integrator vs. lead system integrator? Do our customers have a way to rationally collect and determine capability data using common terminology when they do market surveys, as required for task or delivery orders greater than $100,000?

This market could use a service that ranks companies by their role or function, as measured by the disciplines and expertise required of each, as Gartner Inc. does for the IT product world. Those of us on the sell side will always dream up new product and service categories to try to differentiate ourselves; it's classic competitive marketing.

However, if the terms for meaningful differences between competitors lose their meaning, our market runs the risk of succumbing to the Tower of Babel syndrome, after which regulation is sure to follow. As the Acquisition Advisory Panel heard recently, it is a challenge for the government to adapt its acquisition regulations to keep up with the constantly changing commercial marketplace.

But rather than more rules, I would like to see a market-driven lexicon, perhaps an Uncle Sam version of Wikipedia, to help coordinate a dynamically evolving dictionary of generally accepted meanings of government business terms.

This open, transparent, dynamic market-driven approach beats the regulatory approach that in the past has left us with terms such as "bona-fide employee" and "bona-fide agent" from the Covenant Against Contingent Fees clause, interpretations of which have been known to lead to premature hair loss, dyspepsia and excessively deep frown lines.

Steve Charles is a co-founder of immixGroup, a government business-consulting firm in McLean, Va. Steve welcomes your comments at Steve_Charles@immixgroup.com. immixGroup ranks No. 65 on the Top 100.

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