Getting Down to Business

IAC refines its image as a vital partner for government.

The Industry Advisory Council will have you know that it's a very, very serious organization, and not Northern Virginia's primary conduit for federal IT business networking.

IAC "has matured to the level that content is important," says Venkatapathi Puvvada, chief technology officer of Unisys Corp.'s global public sector and an IAC member. Under an overhaul the organization completed about 18 months ago, nine in-house think tanks called shared interest groups form IAC's core. The groups focus on topics such as information security or acquisition management. The goal is to emphasize engagement with government policy as the organization's primary agenda and to ensure that shared interest groups produce a steady output of material geared to government.

IAC, based in Fairfax, Va., was founded in 1989 as a nonprofit to bring industry and government executives closer; it now has about 480 member companies.

Since the reform took effect, the more active shared interest groups have kept up a drumbeat of white papers, case studies, behind-the-scenes counseling and presentations. Government officials say they appreciate the free material. "Most companies want to talk about their products," says Ira Hobbs, chief information officer at the Treasury Department. IAC requires special interest group presentations or papers to be vendor-neutral. This approach allows government to "get access to the best and brightest of [IAC's] membership without having to sit and listen to a product delivery about why their product is better than anybody else's," Hobbs adds.

In order to provide useful content, however, many shared interest groups must depend on IT operations workers and not necessarily on business development officials, who at times are IAC's most visible members. "The BD people, their job is to get out to those kinds of industry events. Operations folks are paid to be in the office," says a local IT company vice president active in IAC who didn't want to be named.

No steel-sharp line divides business development from operations-many knowledgeable people bridge both sides. In small companies, the distinction might not exist at all. At the same time, differences at the extremes are real and recognized. "If you call me business development, I'll come over and beat you up," says another IT com-pany vice president- joking, mostly.

Business development people gravitate more to IAC's glitzier events-two-hour luncheons at the Willard Hotel in Washington, the dinners, the golf tournaments-rather than shared interest group meetings, because their focus is on the general rather than the specific, says Bill Piatt, IAC executive vice chairman and a vice president for Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego. As long as the useful bits of substance they pick up are relayed internally, they do their job, says one IT executive.

IAC also "needs the BD people to pay for stuff-seriously," says a private sector executive. There's no way conferences could be supported just by government entry fees. In 2005, Government Executive was a gold sponsor of the Executive Leadership Conference and helped sponsor that year's ELC golf tournament.

Business development people are vital to the success of some shared interest groups, Piatt says. The networks and telecom group, for example, advised the General Services Administration on best billing practices for its upcoming Networx procurement. "You definitely do not have engineers involved in that," he adds.

The problem is business development can get out of hand, so the council periodically must tamp it down, some of its members say. At IAC conferences, for example, "The government folks are just outnumbered, and all the BDs that are up there just pounce on them," says an IT executive who attends the conferences. IAC has moved to boost the ratio of government to industry attendees at conferences by limiting guaranteed slots for vendors. "We looked to get the kind of attendance on the industry side that the government is most interested in meeting with," Piatt says. "That would be people that are more senior in the companies-to try to have fewer, more senior people."

IAC has turned to shared interest groups to prepare much of the content for conferences. "We've had issues where industry people want to be moderators on panels, and we're like, 'Uh, no,' " says Sharon Payne, vice chairwoman of the emerging technology shared interest group and director of federal business development at Trust Digital in McLean, Va.

The organization also has scaled back funding for alcohol at conferences. A few years ago, an open bar was the rule; conference attendees now get a limited number of drink tickets. IAC insiders say the decision was largely economic-an open bar can get expensive-but it is "an attempt to maintain the decorum and stress the serious side," says the IT executive. "I've heard a lot of people react to it:'They're cracking down, it'll ruin the whole conference,' " he adds. "You hear a lot of extremes on both sides, people just complaining."

Since its shared interest group reform, the council has in general become more serious, says Bruce McConnell, an IAC vice chairman and president and founder of Washington-based McConnell International, a technology consulting firm. But networking is sometimes unjustly vilified, he adds. "It sounds like people are just socializing, but a lot of business in this town is done on the basis of relationships," he says.

"There are a lot of ways to participate in IAC," says Ellen Glover, IAC chairwoman and executive vice president of ICF Consulting in Fairfax, Va. "The genesis of it was to create a place to allow there to be relationship development between government and industry."

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