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Speaking out about information architecture

Should the people who speak negatively about information architecture and the evolving nature of information systems be taken seriously?

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

There is a quixotic aspect of human nature that gives immediate attention to the critic. When someone stands up in public and makes a criticism of something – anything – there is this human reaction to take that person seriously. We always think that the person making the criticism knows something that we don’t know.

Take Ebert and Roeper. We trusted that they had seen many movies and were connoisseurs of such things. We trusted that they had a sound basis for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down and that they had some criteria for making their pronouncements for a movie. So when Roeper and Ebert criticized movies, we gave them our attention. We may not have agreed with them in every case, but we often interrupted our days to hear what they had to say.

Thus it is that the critic grabs attention when he/she speaks in our society.

A while back, I was interviewed by a magazine writer for a very well known national magazine. The reporter was interviewing me with regard to data warehousing. The writer was taking a very negative stance. I asked him what the basis for his stance was. His reply – “I don’t know the first thing about data warehousing. But people just love it when negative things are said. I get a lot more readers by saying bad things, so I am only interested in hearing bad things about data warehousing.” I could not believe my ears when this reporter explained why he had taken an ultra negative stance toward data warehousing. The last thing the reporter was interested in was facts and reality if they were positive pronouncements.

(This sort of explains a lot about reporters and Hollywood, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, et al.)

In any case, when someone stands up in public and starts to speak negatively, we take their negative criticism seriously. When someone speaks negatively, we assume that there are good reasons for doing so.

In recent vintage, there have been people that speak out negatively about information architecture and the evolving nature of information systems. Some of these people are quite vocal about their dislike of recent definitions of architecture and the recent pronouncements of where architecture is heading. And along the way, they make personal attacks on the people that are leading the way architecturally. Some of these critics work for highly public organizations and speak out regularly on the behalf of the organization.

So let’s examine some of the aspects relating to recent criticisms of information architecture.

There are several questions that should be asked:

What background does the person have that qualifies him/her to make pronouncements about architecture? A while back, one of the most vocal critics of architecture described his background to me. Prior to being an industry analyst, he had been a rock-and-roll roadie. His background consisted of preparing the stage and the guitars for a well known rock-and-roll act. From that lofty (and very qualifying) position, he turned into a technology industry analyst. The really weird thing is that no one ever asked him on what basis he justified his pronouncements about technology. Everyone just assumed that his well known organization had screened him carefully. I often wonder how seriously he would have been taken if people had realized that the basis for criticizing where data warehousing was going was the adjustment of the amps on a bass guitar and the screening of the band from wild-eyed teenage girls.

The second aspect of criticism is to explain why you are critical. What exactly is it that you don’t like? What do you see that is wrong? Roeper and Ebert did an excellent job of dissecting their subjects, talking about what they liked and didn’t like, and saying exactly why. When you watched Roeper and Ebert, you got a really good feeling for why they either liked or disliked something. But critics of information architecture just do not do that. They make blanket statements and never go into any detail. They believe that their word is absolute and should not be questioned.

Are there any alternatives? If not explaining yourself was not bad enough, the critics don’t describe any alternatives to what they are criticizing negatively. It is one thing to say that you don’t like something. It is another thing to offer alternatives. If a critic offers up alternatives, then the critic deserves to be taken seriously. But if the critic just stands up, bad-mouths something, then offers no alternatives and no explanation, it is hard to take the critic seriously.

Indeed, as thrilling as it is to hear someone say negative things, in the long run, unless explanations and alternatives are given, negative comments are soon forgotten.

Once upon a time there was a popular presentation discussing the seven deadly sins of data warehousing. The presentation, which was given at many popular conferences, never offered explanations or alternatives. And now it sits in the ashcan of history, forgotten.

Explanations and alternatives give criticism credibility. With explanations and alternatives, criticism is healthy and can add a great deal to the industry. But without explanations and alternatives, criticism is merely sensationalism, a kind of National Inquirer for the IT profession.

Bill Inmon

Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

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