Quote to Note: Real Consultant Illuminates HP Autonomy

November 22, 2012

Heck, let’s put the 451 Group quote in granite.

I am getting ready to head from England, the land my ancestors fled in 1596, to return to Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky, the culinary center for down home Thanksgiving cooking. (We do squirrel stew. How about you? Now I am sitting in the Dublin airport relishing comments allegedly made by a “real” expert, a 451 Group consultant no less. My source is “HP-Autonomy Fraud Allegations Fallout: The Winners and Losers.” Please, read the original article. It is priceless.

Here is what has me seeing those cartoon stars and exclamation points popular in the funny papers:

The fraud scandal “probably will” affect Autonomy’s fortunes “and I think that’s a shame…Autonomy always had very good technology, but they weren’t able to leverage it very effectively. In HP’s hands, it could be leveraged much better. On the other hand, Autonomy was “acting as a holding company to a large extent, anyway,” following many acquisitions. Only its core IDOL product is quite closely linked to the Autonomy name, “There are some good pieces there and still some strong brands.” (Attributed to a real consultant doing business as Alan Pelz-Sharp.)

Yowza. Consider these observations I jotted down.

  1. The word “probably”. Better safe than confident in one’s facts.
  2. I absolutely love “shame”. Yep, investment bankers are really sensitive to shame, particularly a year after a deal closes and the fees have been paid.
  3. The assertion “they [Autonomy] were not able to leverage it.” Stunning. I thought Autonomy had been in business for 13 or 14 years and had generated north of $700 million, bought a number of companies, and got its logo on a football team and an F1 car. To my albeit limited knowledge, no other search vendor has come close to Autonomy’s top line revenue. $700 million is a healthy figure and somewhere along the line taxes had to be paid, financial reviews conducted, and invoices sent.
  4. Autonomy was a holding company. Okay, this is not the analogy I would choose but let’s assume Autonomy was a holding company. Perhaps the 451 Group’s expert knows line of business revenues and pre tax profits by each of Autonomy’s operating units. Where are the breakdowns?
  5. Only IDOL is linked to Autonomy. My obviously misguided notion was that Autonomy bought a company and then slapped the IDOL brand on the company’s products and services. Then integration tagged along but Autonomy management worked hard to make IDOL the brand for many of its services as Autonomy managed the heck out of staff costs and embarked on upselling. Guess I was ill informed.
  6. “There are some good pieces” begs some detail. Perhaps a good piece is Virage or the virtual reality Aurasma technology which I covered in one of my Information Today columns?
  7. Again that categorical “only” troubles me but I will soldier on.
  8. Yes, I presume fraud will have some impact.
  9. I find the Latinate predicates stimulating as well.

Some color is in order.

451 Group (the “number” references either a science fiction novel or the flash point of paper, which is going out of fashion among some digerati) is a consulting and professional services firm with expertise in “cloudscape,” “multitenant data centers, and a half dozen other specialties. Disclaimer. I used to work for Booz, Allen & Hamilton and now I write “reports” for IDC, another outfit in the same line of work at 451. This means that one has to determine which consulting firm is on the beam. I will let the reader decide, but my bet is on folks who have done time at one of the pantheon firms, not the firms lower in the rental brains’ pecking order.

I have commented on Autonomy is a number of published reports. These range from the now hoary Enterprise Search Report which first appeared in 2003 or 2004 to my 2011 study “The New Landscape of Enterprise Search.” Free download here. I had to sit through various briefings, do some independent verification and validation work, and interact with some of the folks who had a little first hand experience with things Autonomy. I have to check my files, but I think I did a tiny job for Autonomy, but it is tough for me to remember after 40 years of blundering around in the online, search, and content processing sectors. Unlike the 451 Group’s experts, I am not qualified in the cloudscape thing or the multi whozit. I am so so in search and okay in a couple of other disciplines. I eat squirrels too.

My official position is that folks who license enterprise search systems like Autonomy or Endeca usually wind up with some interesting challenges and some hefty bills. When one taps Autonomy-like system or even a free, open source search solution, the likelihood of financial excitement six months into a search project is quite high. When signing on for an enterprise search system, arrogance and ignorance on the part of the customer can equal the spirit of a gaggle of Googlers. One  difference: The Googlers are usually okay with resources, money, code and math. Procurement teams, in my experience, assume their intellectual firepower would decimate other mortals. Wrong. But optimism can be a positive attribute. Just not in big time search solutions.

Enter the marketers, lawyers, and MBAs.

Now a covey of these professionals can draw fascinating conclusions about enterprise search. My problem with the write up and the quote is that the facts of the matter are stark. HP paid billions for a search vendor. HP is in a bit of a financial muddle. HP wants to blame everyone except itself. The losers omitted from the write up are the ones which matter: HP employees, HP management, and the HP Board of Directors.

Maybe the accounting was erroneous. Maybe the auditors stayed up late and drifted through the various audits. Maybe the lawyers, MBAs, and auditors were more focused on their billable hours and commissions. Maybe Autonomy explained how search and content processing deals worked and assumed that the HP team “understood” the upsides and downsides of search.

Somewhere along the line “real” consultants and the legions of people grabbing a piece of the billion dollar deal may be revealing their own intellectual shortcomings. Search is tough. The price HP paid for Autonomy is what it is. A year after buying a property, HP wants its money back. That’s the charming world of business today.

With “real” consultants and big companies looking for a silver bullet to complete their imaginary magic wands, bad deals are the rule. What makes Autonomy interesting is the amount paid by a company which is fraught with management, financial, and technical challenges. I used to keep a list of missteps. But after fumbling the Alta Vista search system opportunity, I lost interest. HP and the “real” consultants want to explain away a mistake without pointing out who triggered the problem. Arrogance, superficial analysis, and lack of search expertise caught fire when big money was in play. Combustible mixture? Yes, indeed.

Stephen E Arnold, November 22, 2012


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