Malaysian companies’ reluctance to share via case studies is doing the market an injustice
Start-ups leading a change in attitude, but many other factors holding us back
IF you were to ask me what the ‘holy grail’ of Malaysian enterprise IT coverage is, there is really only one answer – case studies featuring local companies.
When sitting through a PowerPoint presentation, the inevitable slide showcasing the positive impact a vendor’s solution has made on [insert company name here] will be displayed.
Company X in India achieved 60% reduction in application deployment time. Company Y in Singapore saved up to 70% in IT capital expenditure by switching to a cloud-enabled environment. Company Z in Thailand increased sales conversion by 30% leveraging on big data analytics software.
Time and time again, I would raise my hand in the middle of the briefing and ask: “Do you have any Malaysian case studies?”
Time and time again, the company spokesman would shake his or her head apologetically and reply: “Sorry, no.”
South-East Asia, let alone Asia Pacific, is hardly a homogenous region by any measure. Market conditions, infrastructure and culture vary from border to border.
It’s not always helpful to learn about the experiences of a Hong Kong-based company when a company’s place of business is solely within Malaysia.
It got to the point where I found myself asking “Why is it so bloody difficult to get Malaysian companies to agree to be featured in a case study?”
I spoke to a few veterans in the IT industry, who agreed to share their thoughts on the condition of anonymity.
[Note: First names used in the article are intended for readability and are not their real names.]
What’s the problem?
Mandy, a senior executive at a technology multinational, admitted that it is not easy for local companies to agree to be featured.
There are many reasons for this. Mandy said many companies view it as endorsing a brand and to do so could mean a long queue outside their door of other vendors seeking the same.
Another reason is that companies are often ‘shy’ to speak of failures.
“Of all the case studies I've written for my organization, only one CIO (chief information officer) in India revealed the failures and challenges they faced in rolling out a project.
“The best part was this guy found a way to deploy the project after hours, thus reducing network congestion, maximizing bandwidth and completing it ahead of time! He was thinking outside the box. How cool is that!” she said.
Damien, another executive attached to a major technology firm, said his success rate in getting local case studies “has been pretty much 50-50.”
He also highlighted the mindset issue with Malaysian companies when it comes to such “publicity” exercises.
According to him, some companies view this as a strategic insight which they are freely giving to their competitors to emulate, hence any strategic advantage they’ve gained would be leveled out should their competitors deploy similar solutions to solve the same problems.
“I have seen this particularly among SMEs (small and medium enterprises), where maintaining strategic advantage sometimes means keeping one’s competitors blind, if all they think they are is a one-eyed man,” he added.
Mandy agreed, adding that Malaysian companies don't see the value of sharing their successful case studies because of fears that others might copy their success.
“The reasons are manifold, but seriously, they don't realize that knowledge is power and by sharing how an issue is overcome or problem is solved, they not only gain the respect of the industry but the confidence towards better execution,” she added.
With the more sophisticated organizations, Damien noted that they recognize that publicity is a double-edged sword, making them quite risk-averse. These organizations acknowledge that they have detractors or critics who could leverage the case studies against the organizations themselves.
“This is especially true of government ministries, GLCs (government-linked companies) and organizations where their leaders may be perceived as ‘lightning rods’ for controversy,” he said.
What’s in it for me?
Damien said he has also faced organizations which feel that they “don’t need” the publicity from doing case studies with his company because they’ve been quite successful on their own already.
“These tend to be ‘famous’ brands with strong marketing engines, which then see our pitch to do a case study as publicity for us rather than them. Hence, they see themselves in the position of power to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ” he said.
It is a mindset centered squarely on the bottom-line where any activity that doesn’t demonstrate a clear and direct link to the bottom line isn’t worth the time. “Another very prevalent line of thought especially among SMEs,” he added.
Damien pointed out that another possible reason would be due the simple fact that deployment was a nightmare and had issues.
“So, they hold this against the partner or vendor and just decide not to do a case study. Or at least, they need a while to be persuaded before they become agreeable,” he said.
Or it could be a case of “once bitten, twice shy,” with Damien pointing out clients could have done a case study before and there was backlash or there were vendors which went ahead and did announcements without their consent.
“If they didn’t experience this first-hand, then there are plenty of friends, acquaintances, and friends-of-friends sharing stories too,” he added.
Small, conservative market?
Malaysian companies are typically considered more risk-adverse and conservative than their regional peers.
Mandy feels that the culprit is the inferiority attitude that pervades the corporate culture here, coupled with a tendency to prefer the less risky route of being followers rather than leaders in any new terrain.
“I give up already on clients who have great projects under their hood but are too dumb to recognize it. By the time they get it, someone else out there in this big wide, interconnected world would have not only done it but also taken it to the next level. How to be a leader when the follower mentality persists?” she added.
Kelvin Lim, digital strategist at Burson-Marsteller, agreed that local companies do tend to have a conservative corporate culture, but pointed out that we need to understand how we got there.
“Long-standing regional structures and governance expectations see Malaysia taking directives from larger, more mature markets, and in most cases, we lack the autonomy of independent strategy.
“It’s also a function of consumer behavior, and we’ve grown accustomed to being market followers in following with a risk-adverse tradition,” he said.
“We are too reserved in our execution and prefer to stay within the confines of what is safe and proven, and that compliance is what defeats our ability to present a truly compelling Malaysian case study,” he added.
Lim also honed in on the issue of an inferiority complex that plagues the ranks of local enterprises.
“I think a lot cases don’t get the spotlight they deserve because of an innate sense of inferiority; most well-known case studies are risky and revolutionary endeavors of notable scale, and our market size and sophistication may not be relevant in comparison,” he said.
To him, it’s not about ingenuity of execution, it’s a question of case study relevance in other markets, and brands and agencies refrain from highlighting their work because the measures of comparison simply isn’t relevant.
Damien also admitted that the scale and size of a particular company’s success sometimes doesn’t pass muster. Some companies or brands are just so small or unknown that – in a situation with limited resources – a vendor may have a harder time justifying the investment.
“Sometimes the resulting case study bears no ROI (return on investment) either to other customers or to the media. For example you get asked, ‘Who is this small, dinky company cited in your case study?’ when your company’s business strategy centers on large enterprises,” he added.
Lim argued that global metrics of success for what makes a great case study can’t be applied here, because markets are so different.
“And most of these case studies glorify numbers, which require both market size and campaign scale, both of which may not be possible here. At the end of the day, impact and scale matter,” he said.
Light at end of tunnel?
This doesn’t mean case studies based on Malaysian companies don’t exist. Call it a case of business process evolving within the confines of its environment.
Damien admitted that at other times, the situation is reversed, where clients accept case studies and publicity during the course of the negotiations.
“As part of the negotiations on price or value-added services and benefits, we have also tacked on case studies and publicity as part of the deal. For example, if a client wants a certain discount percentage, we will do it on the condition that they agree to a case study,” he said.
Only recently at a regional event hosted by a large Internet company, I saw a Malaysian SME taking center-stage as one of the featured case studies.
Granted the presentation wasn’t the strongest in the room, but considering that I rarely ever see my countrymen put themselves out there like that had me smiling in encouragement and maintaining a poker face as the spokesperson stumbled here and there.
Damien himself is holding out hope that Malaysian companies will one day be more open about sharing their experiences on record.
“I think the norm is slowly changing … emphasis on the ‘slowly’. This is due to the increasing understanding of public relations value among clients and a better experience with case study development and publicity around it,” he said.
Mandy herself sees a lot of hope coming from the start-up community, the potential big boys of tomorrow.
“These are companies with great ideas and defined by an appetite and willingness to try new things. I hope they keep at it and not succumb to pressure set by the industry or associations,” she said.
She wryly cited a comment she once overheard an online editor tell his reporters: “You want change in the newsroom? The old dogs have to die first.”
How long can we wait?
Trouble is, with other nations within the region coming to the fore, I don’t think we can wait that long.
It is ironic that a nation which boasts of the highest number of Facebook friends on average in the world – where consumption of information is now predominantly determined by what has been shared by others – has such conservatism persisting within its office walls.
If there is one thing today’s hyper-social networks have successfully demonstrated is that there is power, popularity and more to be gained from sharing.
So while local businesses continue to mull over the pros and cons of sharing, I patiently await the day where I hear less about how well companies in other markets are doing, simply because there’s enough of them right here on home soil.
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