People like me who serve as independent industry thought leaders, analysts, or journalists must take great care to maintain objectivity. Our favor is sought by industry vendors, so we must work hard not only to protect ourselves from inappropriate influence, but to also avoid even the appearance of compromise. People rely on us for accurate and useful information. Before founding Perceptual Edge and beginning my current focus on data visualization as it applies to business intelligence, I thought long and hard about the principles that I should follow to protect my work and reputation as a reliable source of information and opinion. Having already worked in the business intelligence industry for many years, I’d heard stories about how the favor of some analysts and journalists could be influenced by vendors through various incentives, and I was determined to never become the subject of any such stories.
We who serve the business intelligence industry in this capacity find ourselves in an awkward position because the business intelligence vendors that we evaluate look to us for help. It’s appropriate for them to look to benefit from our services, but this situation invites compromise, which we must vigilantly resist, both to preserve the value of our work and our personal integrity.
It isn’t my place to define the principles that all business intelligence industry thought leaders, analysts, and journalists should follow, but I’d like to describe those that I follow and invite my colleagues and anyone who’s interested to discuss this topic with me. It wouldn’t hurt to tidy up our own houses a bit. Business intelligence practitioners should be able to rely on us for objective, evidence-based information, with confidence that our favor has not been sold to the highest bidders. Here are four principles that I carefully follow:
- Avoid vendor marketing.
- Don’t accept compensation from vendors for reviewing their products.
- Don’t tie a vendor’s financial interests to your own.
- Publicly identify all clients.
Avoid Vendor Marketing
Support for a vendor’s marketing activities can take many forms. Some journalists write articles about vendors, but include nothing but quotations from that vendor’s marketing materials. In so doing, they are serving as a member of the vendor’s PR team. When an analyst writes a white paper for a vendor that does nothing but promote the vendor’s product, this isn’t the role of an independent analyst but that of a paid marketer. Whenever I’m approached for the first time by a vendor to write a white paper, do a webcast, or speak at an event, I give them the same spiel. I tell them that I don’t participate in marketing activities or anything that anyone might reasonably mistake as a marketing activity. The content that I deliver is always educational in nature about principles and practices, not about a specific product. If the vendor’s product can be used to do anything that I advocate in the paper or presentation, I’ll happily mention the fact or sometimes use the product to illustrate my points, but I won’t build the content around their software. Instead, I’ll build it around principles and practices that are useful to readers and listeners.
On more than one occasion I have tried to discourage vendors who sought my services for such work, because I knew that their products couldn’t support the principles and practices that I teach. To their credit and as evidence of their good intentions, on a few occasions vendors have pursued my services regardless, allowing me to provide educational content that in no way promoted or included even a single favorable comment about their products.
Don’t Accept Compensation from Vendors for Reviewing Their Products
Although it’s certainly possible to review a product objectively when you’re being paid for the work by the vendor who sells the product, in my opinion this crosses into territory that should be avoided. I have never received payment from a vendor for reviewing its product. The few vendors whose products I have reviewed positively, for whom I’ve also done paid work, were not and had never been my clients when I reviewed their products the first time. Some have engaged my services since and some haven’t-it makes no difference. I have never uttered a positive comment about the products of many business intelligence vendors for whom I have done paid work. In fact, in my classes I include examples of what I consider bad graphs and dashboards, which I describe as such, that were created by many of my clients. In other words, whether I’ve done work for a vendor or not has no effect on what I teach or write. Vendors don’t always appreciate this fact and sometimes try to sway me, but credibility is difficult to earn and easy to lose, so there’s no room for compromise.
Don’t Tie a Vendor’s Financial Interests to Your Own
On a few occasions I’ve been invited to accept compensation for work with vendors in the form of stock shares or royalties. For instance, I did extensive work to design a new software product, and could have done so as a co-owner of the product, sharing in its profits. Despite the product’s tremendous revenue-generating potential, I chose to be paid in the form of standard consulting fees. I didn’t turn down the opportunity to make a bundle of money and retire early because I lack business savvy. I turned it down because to do otherwise would have tied my financial interests to the product’s and thus the vendor’s success. Had I shared in the profits, in the public’s mind I would have no longer been able to objectively judge the merits of this vendor or its competitors.
Also, on a few occasions I’ve been asked to serve on a vendor’s advisory board, with compensation in the form of stock. I happily advise any and all vendors who ask, but never in the form of a partnership that might incline me to favor them for my own financial interests.
I’m sure that some business intelligence thought leaders, analysts, or journalists who have partnered with vendors in the ways that I avoid can still maintain objectivity, but the potential for bias certainly complicates matters, and their credibility is compromised. At the very least, those who enter into relationships of these types with vendors should declare the partnership publically each time they write or speak about the vendor or its competitors.
Publicly Identify All Clients
Anyone who wishes can go to the About page of PerceptualEdge.com to read a list of my clients. With the exception of a few small organizations (all non-vendors) for whom I’ve done minor work, and organizations that have sent people to my public workshops but have never engaged my services directly, every client for whom Perceptual Edge has ever done work is on this list. This makes it easy for anyone to look for correlations between my clients and my opinions (favorable, unfavorable, and neutral).
I’m so committed to this level of transparency, I only work for clients who allow me to include them on this list. Not long ago I turned down a lucrative engagement with Disney because shortly before the work was scheduled to begin they asked me to sign a contract that would have prevented me from naming them as a client. Despite my desire to help the good people at Disney who requested my services, I wasn’t willing to compromise, not only because of my commitment to transparency, but also because, in principle, I can’t abide any attempts to block simple statements of fact. I suspect that many people who work in information-related fields share my discomfort with gag orders of this or any type.
If you’re a business intelligence industry thought leader, analyst, or journalist, following these ethical guidelines won’t necessarily prevent people from calling your integrity into question, especially vendors whose products you’ve unfavorably critiqued. When this happens, I believe that the professional, honest, and constructive way to respond is with reason and evidence. Make your case, do so publicly, do so truthfully, and do so rationally, based on a clear presentation of the facts. Due to the nature of our work, we set ourselves up for attack simply by doing our jobs. This comes with the territory. We can’t prevent it, but we can do everything possible to live above reproach.