June 12, 2006

New URL for my Computerworld columns

Computerworld‘s site redesign seems to have led to a change in the URL for my monthly column’s archives. It’s now:

http://www.computerworld.com/action/columnist.do?command=viewColumnist&bylineID=894

The good news is that you can now find about a year and a half of columns there, all of them with legible titles and descriptions.

March 27, 2006

Credibility in cyberspace

As you can tell, I’m not in the habit of posting about the blogosphere itself, but I’ll make an exception in response to an over-the-top post by Robert Scoble. If read literally, it suggests that nobody should ever post anything in a blog unless it’s also suitable to appear in the news section of a credible publication.

As is obvious from his own blog, Scoble doesn’t really believe that. A blog is a medium for news or analysis or anecdotes or random blatherings or any combination of those things (and that’s not an exhaustive list of the possibilities). On the other hand, if one deletes the bolded part, Scoble may well believe the rest — and I may well agree with him.

Opinion columns, and other kinds of analytic publications, are tricky things. My first post-academic job was the most heavily regulated kind of opinion writing there is — stock analysis. Everything we published in those pre-Web days went through two rounds of editing. The first editor was a normal copy editor like any publication might have. The second was a special “supervisory analyst” who had taken a special SEC accreditation examination, to ensure that we didn’t violate any rules. Sometimes I’d argue with her for 10 minutes about one phrase, or to get her to leave in one joke.

But for all that expense, concern, and process, it seemed those rules really boiled down to two commandments:

1. Thou shalt not express an opinion that is not well-founded in your factual research. (In particular, don’t make anything sound like a fact unless you’ve really verified it to that level.)
2. Thou shalt not rely upon forbidden sources of information. (That’s an insider trading prohibition fairly specific to the investment arena.)

I think these rules, or just the first one, should apply to almost all reporting and commentary. Do they? Of course not. Just consider Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, for example, or the mercifully cancelled CNN show Crossfire, or for that matter Fox News (which has as its president Republican political operative Roger Ailes).

Many columnists fail to live up to these standards. Some of the most famous firings from large newpaper staffs have been of columnists, not ordinary reporters. Scoble’s bashing of Andrew Orlowski is — er, it’s well-founded. Newspaper sports sections often assign reporting and analytic duties to the same person, who may supplement his income by doing radio or TV gigs; such people are often entertainers much more than they are serious analysts or honest reporters (as some readers may have already guessed, I’m thinking most specifically of Ron Borges of The Boston Globe). Other columnists manage to combine analysis, expert wordsmithing, and high-quality reporting. Political columnist (and former partisan Republican speechwriter) William Safire, for example, won a Pulitzer Prize for what amounted to reporting on the subject of Billy Carter.

Now that I’ve meandered for a while, let me mosey on back toward the question raised in Scoble’s post. What tests of credibility should we impose on bloggers in the area of (enterprise) technology? I think what Scoble proposes about sourcing, linking, etc. are way too restrictive, and in some cases even silly. One should never post anything unless one has a named, on-the-record source?? C’mon. Some of the best investigative reporting is based on anonymous sourcing, very carefully confirmed. (Here’s an example of me taking this route.) Indeed, sometimes a reviewer or analyst is able to come to an informed conclusion based solely on his or her own judgment or experience, without contacting anybody else to be told what to think. Analysis may overlap with journalism, but it’s not the same thing.

Here are some of the tests I apply, implicitly or explicitly, to make sure I’m comfortable with my own work:

And I guess those are the criteria I apply to other bloggers and columnists as well.

By the way — Robert Scoble generally passes my tests. But Andrew Orlowski does not.

February 13, 2006

Everybody gets paid — or would like to

The disclosures in this post have been updated in June, 2008.

I’m sometimes amazed at the breathless pseudo-naivete about pundits (analysts, bloggers, whatever) and compensation. The latest round was kicked off by a WSJ article about bloggers promoting FON. A couple of years ago, Computerworld editor Maryfran Johnson was viewed as a heroine for pointing out analyst firm conflicts of interest.

Personally, I’ve been an analyst for almost 30 years; I have a strong reputation for being independent and critical; and I get most of my revenue from vendors. So perhaps I’m in a good position to clarify some of the issues.

1. Good vendor relationships are an important factor in an analyst’s success. It’s not just revenue; you also need access to information. This is true whether you’re a stock analyst or an industry analyst.

Now, if you’re a good analyst, you can work around access problems. You can talk with customers, competitors, ex-employees, and other industry players. You may have relationships that transcend the company’s communication controls. (For example, it’s a firing offense at Oracle to have unsanctioned conversations with an analyst. And Oracle isn’t sanctioning a whole lot of conversations with me these days. But for a number of reasons, such as longstanding relationships with “untouchable” higher-ups, my information flow from inside the company is still pretty good.) Still, having access is better than not having access, and companies use that as a lever.

2. Analysts typically have more confidence in the companies that are their paying clients. I honestly call ‘em as I see ‘em, no matter who is or isn’t paying me. But some of my calls have to do with confidence. And who will I be more confident in? Company A, which has disclosed almost all their current activities and intermediate-term plans to me, and has given serious consideration to expensive advice they’ve paid me for (and hopefully done something with the advice)? Or Company B, with whom my relationship is largely being fed marketing pabulum, with only the occasional renegade getting off the reservation and telling me what’s really going on? Obviously, it’s often Company A.

Gartner Group is no different from me in that regard.

3. There’s a reinforcement cycle that confuses questions of bias. Companies give money and attention to analysts who are positively inclined towards them. They buy consulting services from analysts whose worldviews are compatible with theirs. The resulting relationship, if it goes well, reinforces everybody’s positive opinions of each other.

Meanwhile, companies give cold shoulders to analysts who don’t like them. And that just reinforces analysts’ opinions too.

4. Experience teaches that the companies that most manipulate or hide from analysts have the most to hide. If a company feels good about its strategy, and is eager to listen and learn how to make it even better, it’s often pretty engaged with analysts. If there are some product weaknesses it would prefer not to have discovered, it may be more inclined to concentrate its efforts on only the big firms it must talk to, and cold-shoulder the others. There are exceptions, of course, based on factors such as marketing budgets or the cluefulness of the analyst relations staff. But a good analyst’s gut feel about who is or isn’t being forthright is often a pretty good indicator of how a company’s technology is doing. Indeed, I have had some famous successes in this regard over the decades (e.g., the Cullinet and Sybase stories, which I really need to write up at some point over on the Software Memories blog). And it’s not just me. David Ferris of Ferris Research led the way when he and I had a success of that kind together with respect to Critical Path, shortly before the management team was discovered to be criminally dishonest.

5. Being on advisory boards almost always involves compensation or the expectation of compensation. Anybody who asserts otherwise is dishonest or naive. But then, the only folks I’ve ever seen assert otherwise are Fabian Pascal and (sort of) Chris Date.

So here is some of my disclosure.

October 19, 2005

Subjects in which I’m particularly interested

Throughout my 24-year career as an industry analyst, my top-level question has always been: “What aspects of the industry/sector/market/company are worst understood, or most overlooked?” Most commonly, the answer lies somewhere in the overlapping areas of technology, market positioning, and ongoing sector consolidation. And any discussion of technology and positioning depends heavily upon the way customers actually adopt and use new stuff.

It’s no different now. Most of my efforts recently have been devoted to DBMS (like always), text technologies, and analytics in general. In DBMS I’m making the very strong technological case that vendor consolidation is overrated, and that we’re in an era when 1000 specialty database flowers will bloom. The survivors will eventually all be tied together by XML-based SOAs. (Some of my friends at big DBMS vendors are not very happy with me right now.) My arguments against the prevailing wisdom may be found at a specialty blog on database management techology, called DBMS2. I plan to add more positive comments on the interesting new technologies soon.

In text technologies, there are a whole lot of point products. Despite booms in certain areas, such as text data mining, these are only scraping the surface of user requirements. What’s needed – and surely coming – is a dramatic evolution into one or more much larger product categories. How long that takes is unknown, however; right now the two pillars of the market (search and text data mining) are as industry segments go quite far apart. I also have started a specialty blog to track this area, with the simple name of Text Technologies.

My most active area of research these days is probably analytics. Certainly it’s my oldest interest of the three I cited, dating back to my student years, when I basically focused on decision theory for my dissertation and post-doctoral research. I think that, after decades of false alarms, the center of gravity in enterprise computing has REALLY shifed from OLTP to decision support. At least, that’s true at the larger enterprises; SMB are still playing catchup in the transactional area.

While I think there are lots of interesting technological issues in analytics – and indeed no enterprise analytics vendors’ product line is close to fully-baked – what really matters here is understanding the users. Vendors blithely claim that they’re going to foster a whole cultural transformation, in which top-to-bottom decision-making will suddenly become rational and numerate. Yeah, right. In tracking the evolution of the analytic technology business(es), nothing is more important than being realistic about how this stuff is and will be actually used.

I plan to write about these and other areas in the days and months ahead. Stay tuned – and, as always, if you would like to disagree with or add to what I have to say, please please let me know. My research, as always, depends on you.

October 19, 2005

About this blog

The Monash Report analyses enterprise software and related industries. It is a successor to the Monash Software Letter and other Monash Information Services publications of the 1990s.

About the author

Curt A. Monash, Ph.D., has been a highly influential software industry analyst and participant since 1981. His writings have received extensive praise from industry leaders, including Larry Ellison’s remark “Curt Monash’s publications provide unmatched insight into technology and marketplace trends. I have read them avidly for over a decade” Fuller biographical information about Curt can be found at his Monash Information Services bio page. (Note: The Monash Information Services site hasn’t been updated for a year or two, and accordingly needs a bit of freshening.)

Curt’s views, including some historical observations, may also be found in Text Technologies (covering text mining, search, speech recognition, text command-and-control, and other linguistics-related software sectors), Software Memories (personal reminiscences and other historical notes about the last three decades or so of the software and internet industries), and DBMS2 (covering developments in enterprise database management and XML-based SOAs).

Curt’s primary email address follows the template FirstnameLastname@Lastname.com, although disguising it that way is tantamount to closing the pantry door after the spam has already gotten in. Thus, please put a distinctive title on your email, so that your email won’t mistakenly be thrown out with the bad stuff. Mentioning “Monash Report” would be one excellent idea.

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