Over the past year we have seen global systems integrators (SIs) – Accenture, IBM, Deloitte, Fujitsu, Capgemini and others – make many acquisitions, particularly in the public cloud, AI, cybersecurity and data space. Much of the growth in spending over the past few years have been driven by these categories: in 2020 if a software company was purely or mainly SaaS, they are likely to have witnessed strong growth. If they were on-premises software, they were lucky not to see declining revenues. While it is normal for the larger SIs and consultants to play catch up through acquisition, it is becoming harder for them to gain traction in these new areas.
Technology Shifts Drive Market Fragmentation
With every technology-driven business change new SIs, consultants, and managed services providers emerge. It happened with the move to big ERP systems, the move towards Business Intelligence, the emergence of SaaS etc. But I think we are now seeing something different. More than just the smaller players going after opportunities earlier, I believe we are seeing a changing buying behaviour from tech and business buyers – a greater willingness for larger enterprises to give their most important, business-critical strategies and implementations to smaller, less established players.
And I am not suggesting that the larger SIs are not performing well. Many are growing at 10-25% YoY – but at the same time, many are also growing at a slower rate than the markets they play in. The Ecosystm RNx for global IT services and consulting providers shows that the global providers continue to power ahead. But they need to adapt to changing market conditions.
New Cloud/AI Partners Winning Consulting and Implementation Deals
We have seen a new community of partners emerge with tech changes, such as the hyperscale cloud platforms and AI/machine learning tools. Traditionally, these companies would be good at one thing – and would learn slowly. For example, in the SAP ERP growth period, the projects were large and long. A single, mid-sized SI might only be working with 2-3 clients at a time. Therefore, the IP that they collected was limited – and they would find themselves with focused or niche skills. The large SIs had done many large, long projects across the globe and had much best-practice IP to call upon, giving them a broader and deeper knowledge of the technology and industries. Smaller providers had limited IP and industry experience.
But in this cloud and AI era, specialist providers work on hundreds of smaller projects with dozens or hundreds of clients. With the technology constantly evolving, the skills are constantly improving. While the global SIs are working on many cloud and AI engagements, they are often part of longer engagements – giving the consultants and tech teams less exposure to the new and evolving cloud platforms.
In a world where technology is changing at pace, the traditional global SI practice of “learning from peers across the globe” doesn’t happen at the pace the market requires. By the time your peers in the business have completed a project, documented it, and shared learnings, the market has moved on and technology has changed. Today it is easier and faster to learn directly from the tech vendors and cloud platform providers and their training partners. The network effect of knowledge in a team on the opposite side of the globe for a global SI is less valuable to clients. Often the smaller and mid-sized SIs have a deeper, broader knowledge of the technology platforms and toolsets than the larger providers – giving them a competitive advantage. For example, if you want the actual experience of moving SAP to Azure, or Oracle to AWS – you’ll often find the smaller providers have more experience. And this continues to play out. In many markets in the world, the top 5-10 SIs for cloud, AI and cybersecurity has a high proportion of local specialist providers.
Tech Buyers No Longer Look for Culturally Aligned Partners
Tech buyers themselves are changing too. In years gone by, the smaller tech partners would tell us that they felt they were included in bids to drive down the price from the global SIs. But today the story is different. Smaller partners are admired for their agility and innovation. Large enterprise customers will choose small providers because the small SI is NOT like them. In the past, they chose the global SI because they were just like them!
Because of this, the large SIs are mopping up their smaller competitors across the globe. Accenture has acquired 40 companies in the past 10-11 months, IBM has acquired over 10, Atos and Cognizant have also acquired many companies in the past 12 months. They are doing this for the skills as much as for the clients, along with getting a foothold in a new market or strengthening their position in geography. The challenge will be to hang on to the clients, culture, and the IP of the acquired business. Often these smaller competitors are growing at a significant pace – and the biggest risk is that the acquiring company takes their eyes off the prize.
Global SIs Still Own the Industry Play
Despite these challenges, one of the areas that the global SIs will continue to dominate is the industry play. I have discussed how as technologies mature, industry plays become more relevant.
Smaller and mid-sized SIs and consultants find it hard to create deep pools of expertise across multiple industries. While some may have a deep focus on a single or two industries, only the large players have broad and deep geography and industry experience. This puts many of the acquisitions into context – the global SIs will take these acquisitions and use that deep and broad technical and business knowledge and add it to their industry knowledge to create a more compelling offering.
Their challenge will still be one of cultural alignment. As discussed, many companies seek out tech partners who represent what they want to be, not what they are. The ability for the Global SIs to retain the culture, agility and innovation of the acquired business will determine their ability to continue to see similar or improved levels of growth from the acquired business. Using their IP in the context of industries will be the key to their ongoing success.