Friday Rant: Do We Need a Thicker Skin

I often get asked how much time I spend on this blog. The answer, depending on the week, is somewhere between 25-30 hours researching and writing these virtual pages. The amount of time increases when I cover events, conferences, important vendor news, etc. But the honest answer is that I spend much more time contemplating what I say, the implications and impact on my personal and professional relationships (e.g., will I lose a source of information based on something I've said that offended a party to a comment, either directly or indirectly?) The solution, fortunately, is something that I have the responsibility and right to determine in each case, and unless I have a change of ethical heart, I'll always prioritize what I deem to be important and right over the relationship implications of publishing. Larger organizations (e.g., analyst firms) have more complicated relationships with providers that transcend individual connections and reputations, hence they're less likely, in at least some cases, to call it as they see it in writing.

So why am I writing this for the Friday rant? In the past couple of weeks, I've had more than one interaction with providers that have not liked my coverage -- about them or their competitors (or my questioning of business practices, solutions, etc). In some cases, my colleagues have been threatening in their responses, insinuating that my coverage (or potential coverage) of a story might play a role in whether or not I could develop or expand a professional relationship. But in most cases it's been more subtle, bordering on personal assaults to my credibility and ethics. Sometimes this feedback has been direct and cordial, but often it's not.

I'll admit that I spend many nights worrying about these incidents, and whether or not I will lose friends and contacts over subjects I report upon (I can stand to lose clients, because if I could not, then I'd truly be selling out). Many cases, however, are not black and white. When a current or former employee of a company comments about whom they have worked for (or managed) and the business practices they've witnessed are less than positive, is it something I should print? In many cases no, especially if it's coming from just one source or perspective and/or is irrelevant to the big picture. In some cases yes, if I can validate from multiple objective sources and if it has a bearing on how customers and potential customers should look at a company and their products. It's a tough call, and it will not always make you friends.

But objectivity -- and aspiring to be objective -- matters. At least to me. What I write (or that which I consider writing and does not make it into print -- which is more than you might think) sometimes brings out the worst in people, either when I approach them before hand or after they have read what I've written. This behavior manifests itself in how they treat me, what they accuse me of, and in their direct, indirect or implicit threats and commentary in how they respond. Maybe I need to accept that if I'm making everyone happy, then I'm probably not doing my job. But I'm not there yet.

I frequently revisit my opinions and judgments. I did it many times in my recent coverage of Emptoris, attempting to offer multiple perspectives as I learned more and as the litigation and acquisition unfolded. And in one case regarding this particular buy-out, I continue to refrain from publishing certain information because I've not thought it relevant to customers. Moreover, I believe the buy-out itself actually was positive for customers -- especially considering the alternative (e.g., a shut-down or selling of IP/assets of the company) and the potential lawsuit liabilities without an additional commitment or cash infusion on behalf of investors. But above all -- Emptoris' situation included -- I've learned that situations are never quite as black and white as they might first appear, especially when there are multiple parties (e.g., customers, partners, shareholders, investors, employees) to consider in the outcome.

As a writer, it's not usually possible to cover all of the angles all of the time -- breaking news and business developments are always a work-in-process. But it's most certainly my obligation to always be true to what I believe is right and warrants investigation, which by nature is subjective (but hopefully informed by an objective outlook and spirit). This conundrum is not always a prescription for making friends or getting a good night's sleep. I suppose this will continue to come with the territory and I suspect that thicker skin -- mine and others -- might not be conducive to direct and honest dialogue. Confrontation, after all, is part of getting to the bottom of things.

As an afterthought, I can't help but think about how the bearers of bad tidings were superstitiously slain during medieval times. We've come a very long way since then but perhaps our instincts have not. Our increasing pursuit of transparency, grown out of the objectivist assumption of individual rationality alongside the democratic precept of free speech, demands vigilance, honesty and self-reflection rather than knee-jerk reactions.


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