A thoughtful piece by Aditya Chakrabortty in today’s (printed) Guardian newspaper caught my attention because it analyses a feeling I’ve long had about the developing phone hacking scandal. Phone hacking: a classic case of corporate failure? explains succinctly why those at the top may be genuinely ignorant of specific abuses undertaken in their name; but the culture which they engender is nonetheless directly responsible for it. Chakrabortty uses the phrase ethical fade to capture the slide from honest journalism (or policing, or politics) to a culture where results are all that matter and the means are not questioned.
The same edition covers the death of the News of the World reporter who first let the cat out of the bag. A very personal tribute by Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who pursued the story, shows how ethical fade operates. Sean Hoare was part of it: but recognised, in the end, what was happening.
And a flashback to less than three weeks ago gives a snapshot of the relationship between the various groups now at the heart of the scandal: politics and media together at a Murdoch party.
Charkrabortty’s article widens the discussion. He uses an example from the Ford Motor Company where, rather than recall and fix an identified safety problem with a particular car, they set aside money for lawsuits. They ended up having to do the recall anyway. My own favourite example is the Challenger space disaster: same cause, in that nobody would tell the project leaders what they needed to hear (and this included the inquiry; it was Richard Feynman’s famous minority report which nailed it). We saw it last year in BP, in the Gulf of Mexico, after then-CEO Tony Hayward had told the AGM in so many words that “BP is now a safe company”. Somewhere down the line, the pressure for results drives disastrous mistakes to be made. There’s even a question now whether News Corporation will follow Enron and Lehman down the tubes.
But this is an IT blog. What’s it got to do with us?
The political dimension to the News International crisis is about influence.And about the way people work at influencing the influencers. Well, that activity is a major part of the enterprise IT ecosystem. Unlike some, we don’t hide it: we call it Analyst Relations or AR.
One of the things I learned when managing an enterprise IT insight services portfolio was to look behind the claims of objectivity and independence that all insight services people offer – everyone from Gartner and Forrester to the smaller providers. I remember first encountering AR in the person of an AR professional at a METAmorphosis event (that dates it!): someone who worked for one of the major software companies and whose role, quite openly, was to present that company’s products and strategies in the most positive light. Because the insight companies influence buying decisions, sometimes very strongly: so AR is a crucial element of an IT vendor’s marketing strategy.
As a purchaser, user and advocate of insight services, I needed to know this stuff. You observe that a significant element of the costs of larger and smaller insight events is met by vendors through direct sponsorship, through buying space at the associated expo, by providing speakers, through their attendance fee levels and more. You observe that their Consulting arms do commissioned work for vendors – and in a line of work now where I don’t have a subscription, those reports are valuable sources, but for the providers they’re an income stream. You realise that vendors will try and ensure good outcomes from the lab tests that deliver marketplace assessments such as the well-respected Magic Quadrant, insofar as the process will let them. There’s this whole ecosystem dedicated to influencing the influencers.
Well, by no means am I saying that AR is unethical. In fact, far from it. The point about the current political mess is that we are realising how much has been going on away from the public view. Analyst Relations is an overt process, with colleagues such as Lighthouse and KCG offering training and certification in its activities. No-one pretends it isn’t happening, though I’d guess that a lot of enterprise buyers don’t realise how extensive an activity it is.
But let’s not believe “it couldn’t happen to us” or that we couldn’t undergo ethical fade. In Chakrabortty’s words:
… managers, shareholders and staff [don’t] necessarily set out to do bad things. They simply [get] swept along on a culture of hitting targets – and not asking too many questions.
Feynman, in his context, put it succinctly:
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
It’s not just technology where this applies. Reality is hitting the influencing industry now. So read Chakrabortty. Let’s make sure we keep on asking the questions. And for enterprise buyers out there: learn more about your insight provider’s influence ecosystem (InformationSpan has a model for it, if you want to ask!). Read the piece; it’s worth it.
Links (Guardian articles appeared in print 19 July)
• Phone hacking: a classic case of corporate failure? Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian, 18 Jul 2011
• Sean Hoare knew how destructive the News of the World could be, Nick Davies, Guardian, 18 Jul 2011
• How the phone-hacking scandal unmasked the British power elite, John Harris, Guardian, 18 Jul 2011
• Appendix F – Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle, Richard Feynman, NASA, 1986
• Lighthouse Analyst Relations
• Knowledge Capital Group