An IIAR survey has prompted the Wikinomics blog to ask “who needs analyst firms anyway“? The article echos some of the themes in Jonny’s article, In praise of open source analysis, which last year discussed the trend for analyst firms to give away their basic research. “Analyst houses” he commented “have been using this model successfully for years.”
In fact, most of those firms are not open source in the the commonly accepted definition of the term. While “open source” is understood by some people to mean only “free”, few analysts have actually adopted the open source approach.
What is open source in the context of industry analysis? Jonny answers: “Analysts who give away their research for free (e.g. via blogs, free downloads, journals etc)”.
I am not so sure. For example, Internet Explorer is free, as is much of the research on agreegation sites (like alltheanalysts). However, the open source aproach is defined by a number of attributes:
- Open to collaboration. The process of production is transparent and collective. The consumers are also co-producers.
- Open to development. The flaws and weaknesses of the work are totally open to discussion and correction. The source for the whole product is open. There are no secrets.
- Open to reuse. With open source, users are free to modify the product, or to take only the parts they want. They can incorporate it into their own work without needing the permission of the original author. They can take the product and host it on their own machines. They can engage in mass distribution of a modified work.
Taken together, this means something produced in an open source way carries with it a ‘warranty of quality’ that is quite different from conventional products. Because the collaborative and open development process is different, it’s quite possible that the open source process produces different products: not necessarily better or worse, but certainly different.
In contrast it seems that the research methods and objectives of many analyst firms which distribute free research are often not open source.
For example, some firms take advantage of vendor sponsorship to fund some, or all, of their research. In many cases, the spirit and practice may resemble that of a “patronage” model (similar to the way vendors often fund open source research). However that means the analyst remains in control of the research design, execution and interpretation, as well as the final form distributed, in a manner that is typically well thought out at the start. One could say that this avoids the risk of bias, from vendors or others. However, that is not open source.
Sometimes, patronage is seen as having some issues. Patrons expect benefits. Jan Vermeer’s patron, Pieter van Ruijven, got paintings. Linus Torvalds’ helped his patron, Transmeta, to get valuable IP and become the ‘most important company in Silicon Valley’. Neither Vermeer nor Torvalds could have stopped and acted in a way that acted against their sponsors interests and then expected the patronage to continue.
For example, highly-respected and independent firms have been criticised for accepting funding: as was the case with Microsoft-sponsored research into Linux. The patron clearly retains some authority: For example, the topics are specified by the vendors who sponsor the research. The methods employed are not open to the user who wants to see if the research process might work differently if the source – the data and methods – are modified.
Open source research could involve collective ad open discussion about, for example, survey tools and scope. That process is not open for free analyst research. Readers don’t know the approaches, question and responses that have not been used in the final report. Furthermore, the reworking, modification and re-use of alost all free analyst research is not free.
Johnny made this comment about these analyst firms: “If it’s given away – it’s open source. Period. Does this liken to Aberdeen being ‘gun’s for hire’ – that’s a different argument entirely. The market will dictate that – if people do not believe [their] trustworthiness or independence (…) then they will go bust. If indeed they or anyone else can be bought I will celebrate their demise too. However, this isn’t the case at the moment and I hope it never becomes that way.”
That advice is worth listening to, even though I disagree with Jonny’s use of ‘open source’. All analyst firms, both those with free research and the others, can use open source techniques to develop wider appreciation of their reliability.