Top 10 tech leaders

Survey of more than 600 IT execs measures how vendors are perceived.

We all hear people say that Cisco is the leader in networking or Microsoft is the leader in software. But what does it mean to be a leader?

Slide show: Leadership survey

In this survey, Sage Research and Network World found that 10 companies of a finalist list of 30 led the pack in terms of perceived leadership -- no matter which leadership metric was used.

Apple is one standout example. In the world of enterprise computing, it often is thought of as a niche player -- yet the survey shows it is recognized widely for having superior leadership qualities and being a key technology industry leader. It is in a virtual three-way tie for the highest score on superior technology vision leadership.

An even greater surprise is IBM, a company that has reinvented itself at least twice in the last 20 years. Technology industry insiders often joke that the phrase "You won't get fired for buying IBM" is no longer relevant (or they replace IBM with Cisco).

But 10 (some would say 15) years after the rise and fall of the IBM-owned SNA market, IBM is still perceived widely as a leader; it's not just in the Top 10 but in the Top 3 of every leadership metric. IBM's role is very different from what it once was, but the company's dominance in select markets, such as servers and services, has earned it an important role in the minds of customers.

Cisco's high scores are less surprising, given its dominance in several key markets; its success reflects the fact that people are confident buying from the company.

How we rated leaders

A total of 643 respondents rated a group of technology companies based on their perceptions of the companies' leadership, products/services quality and other attributes. To rate a company, respondents were required to be familiar with the organization's products/services, but not necessarily be current customers.

Respondents included a mix of Sage Research's Technology Panel members and Network World subscribers. Although respondents could select from a list of 50 vendors, our final list includes the 30 vendors that were known by 50 or more respondents.

The 50 technology companies were selected jointly by Sage Research and Network World.

Are there types of leadership?

A comparison of how the companies perform on different metrics shows some interesting patterns. The very strong ones -- IBM, Apple, Cisco -- are strong in every area.

Apart from these three leaders, however, how much overlap is there between different aspects of leadership? For example, are the companies considered to be key technology industry leaders also the ones widely perceived as having superior executive management leadership?

Not necessarily. With the notable exception of Dell, the Top 10 companies have far lower scores on executive management leadership than on other leadership metrics.

Dell's score probably is caused by Michael Dell's high visibility over the years. His story is the stuff entrepreneurial legends are made of. In contrast, Symantec has strong, positive scores for having superior leadership qualities and being a key technology industry leader, but its executive management leadership scores are mostly in the neutral range, a large gap. Thus, it appears a company can be perceived as having other superior leadership attributes without its management being highly visible.

There also are interesting differences when companies' superior leadership qualities are compared with the perception of them as key technology industry leaders. HP is very strongly rated as a technology industry leader, yet its score in superior leadership qualities lags. This might be because of its highly publicized management and organization changes the past few years.

If you're wondering why no service providers showed up on the Top 10 list, it's because none is as widely perceived as a leader as such companies as Cisco, IBM, Apple and Dell. As a group, service providers face a real challenge of perception in all the leadership areas measured by this study. Even though eight of the 30 companies rated in this study are service providers, none ranks among the Top 10 for any leadership measure.

For example, 34% rate AT&T highly for its superior technology vision and superior leadership qualities. MCI's scores were among the lowest of the 30 on several metrics. Verizon's scores are notably higher, however, so MCI will benefit from their merger.

In addition, the customer experience with service providers leaves much room for improvement. For example, 37% of respondents rated AT&T highly in the category of "behaves as if it truly values its customers." In contrast, HP received a 70% score in the same category.

Outside of service providers, there are a few other notable MIAs. 3Com is not on the Top 10 leadership and executive management lists, yet it had a strong showing when respondents were asked about their purchasing plans. The same holds true for several other companies that did not make it to the Top 10 in leadership and management. It's not that people think poorly of these companies; in most cases, the companies had a lot of neutral results, demonstrating that people think of them as average, or aren't sure what to think of them at all.

We love our leaders

It's a chicken-and-egg argument: Do we perceive the Top 10 as leaders because we buy so much from them?

Or do we buy so much from them because we see them as leaders?

The bottom line is that the companies we do perceive widely as leaders are the ones we plan to buy from, suggesting that there are 20-plus other companies that need to be doing a much better job of showing us their leadership qualities.

Kathryn Korostoff is vice president of Sage Research (the technology practice of Chadwick Martin Bailey). She can be reached at

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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