Yesterday, I was talking with members of the SAS government team about recent developments, such as the state of their business, acquisitions (here's my take on one of those companies), and success stories. I was very, very happy that they wanted to devote the majority of time on the success stories, since you often get more insight from discussing how customers are using technology than running through the list of new features and functions.

Funny thing, that's exactly the conclusion of our research on thought leadership: If you want to be a thought leader, talk about how you've made people successful. Actually, there are more aspects of thought leadership, but success stories are a good place to start. Not only do they illustrate how a vendor can contribute to a project, but they also identify the types of projects worth pursuing.

SAS is involved in well-established, well-understood government activities, such as preventing fraud in corporate tax collection and social programs. It's also involved in far less established and understood areas, such as nipping new cybersecurity threats in the bud and dealing with recent IT requirements for health care. Not only are governments trying to figure out how to fit technology into their strategies for dealing with these new challenges, they're still figuring out the strategies.

Unfortunately, it's hard to disentangle the strategy from tactics. Any strategy built on unfeasible premises – for example, hunting down every person responsible for unleashing worms and viruses on the rest of the world – isn't really a strategy. But who can say what's not feasible, if no one has done anything in this area at all? (In the last decade, fear of future terrorist attacks has inspired the US federal government to pursue no small number of ill-conceived IT projects. Here's my favorite example, which also sports one of the creepiest logos ever.)

One of the best ways for dealing with these situations is to learn from other scenarios that resemble them. For example, social network analysis can help identify fraud and trigger a response. Here's an example from Los Angeles County, a SAS customer with a very interesting story to tell. The general contours of LA County's project might fit cybersecurity projects, in which social network analysis might help identify cybercriminals and trigger a response. It's not too hard, therefore, for SAS to position itself as a potential thought leader in cybersecurity, despite the fact that the levels and types of cybersecurity threats are unprecedented.

The value of thought leadership isn't just felt at the point when a customer selects a vendor. Long before they build a short list, customers need to build a case for the projects themselves, based in large part on information they don't necessarily have. What are the feasible ways to use technology to address a problem? How much success is it reasonable to expect?

[And yes, for as much as I've been yakking about thought leadership for months, the document is almost done. Honest. Perhaps in minutes or hours from the time you read this blog post, it will appear in my list of publications, and there will be much rejoicing.]