On August 9, 2010 CMSWire published an article, “Collaboration – an Intranet Perspective.” Little did we know it marked the start of a collaboration with its author, Martin White, that would last over a decade.
But like all good things, our collaboration comes to an end. Today’s article, “Search Excellence = 3 + xA + yB + zC,” marks Martin’s final — and 134th — column for the site. It’s an end of an era, and one worth commemorating.
With that first article, Martin set the tone for what was to come: practical advice or thoughts on thorny workplace topics, expressed in plain terms and girded by recommendations for further reading. Critically, the article focused on the human effort required to solve the problem at hand, without sugarcoating technology’s part in the solution. These themes would recur throughout his columns over the next 10 plus years.
By the time Martin started writing for CMSWire, he already had decades of experience in the information management field, over a decade of which was spent with his own consultancy, Intranet Focus, Ltd, and had a number of books to his credit (the first and second editions of his definitive "Enterprise Search" came out more recently).
We spoke with a number of people who have worked in some capacity with Martin over the years to understand his place and impact on the field. And in much the same way as with his articles, two big themes carried through all of the conversations: his ability to synthesize ideas and act as a bridge between academia and practitioners; and his generosity as a mentor, an advisor and a human.
Applying the Scientific Method to Information Management
The scientific method has certain core principles at its foundation: observing and asking questions, developing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis and iterating based on the results. A big part of moving forward involves challenging assumptions, something which Martin excels at.
He originally trained as a chemist and this scientific background shines through in how he approaches wicked problems in the workplace, wondering “why certain approaches to information management seem to work when others fail.”
“He always wants to challenge things (in the best possible way). He asks really good questions …. That’s helped me a lot — not only to learn from him but to also expand how I think and see those things,” said Search Explained founder and CEO Agnes Molnar.
Jed Cawthorne first met Martin in the early 2000s when he brought him in to assess an enterprise content management project he was working on. “He challenges you on your conclusions and challenges you on where you're going with this vision — and that's great. And that's someone you can learn from,” said Cawthorne, now NetDocuments director of security and governance solutions.
Though some might take umbrage at someone suggesting you trash months of work or that you might not know how to collaborate, the goal is to push people to improve. Sometimes that might take the form of an email to his editor, suggesting that we as writers, editors and publishers shouldn’t add to the violence and sorrow in the world by using nonsensical terms like “killer apps.”
Sometimes the advice would come up in an elevator conversation. “He would make it his business just to let me know how nice it is to see me doing something. And then just give me some ideas about how I can go further, how I can expand, how I can hone in on the detail,” said Wedge Black, an intranet consultant with ClearBox and managing director of the Intranet Now conference.
Bridging the Worlds of Academia and Business
“Martin’s got this incredible ability to go deep into the academic research and … to pick out from the many bits of arcane, academic writing things that we in business and practitioners should really be understanding,” said ClearBox Consulting founder Sam Marshall.
Look at any of Martin’s articles and you’ll see this talent in action. Anyone looking for a syllabus in information management and enterprise search would do well to collect the research and books which pepper all of his columns. Martin's skill for distilling the salient points from academic research and putting them within the business context at a level we can all understand sets him apart.
"His ability to create deep, well-resourced materials on search, taking no prisoners but also remaining entirely neutral in the face of often unrealistic marketing hype, is unique,” said Charlie Hull, managing consultant at OpenSource Connections.
The academic rigor Martin brings to the business world is balanced out by his years as a practitioner. Keeping up to date on research isn't a purely cerebral pursuit, but rather a recognition of the foundations on which good practices are built. "Information still flowed" before digital, as Wedge noted, and Martin acts as the bridge to connect foundational and current research to application in the workplace.
We have all benefited from his ability to read 10,000 words per minute and his near-photographic memory. But unlike academic writing, which can get bogged down in seven dollar words and footnote rabbit holes, Martin understands the power of metaphor to make a salient point.
To a certain extent, Martin acts as a guardrail, holding vendors to task for overpromising on software capabilities without acknowledging the "hard work" that underpins delivery, as Intrateam founder Kurt Kragh Sørensen noted. He's also not afraid to challenge a vendor's new research publicly on Twitter, as Jed laughingly pointed out.
"There’s too much reinvention because there’s not enough Martins to say 'Let's build on what we already discovered rather than deluding ourselves that this is brand new' when it isn't,” Clearbox's Marshall said.
A Mentor to Many
One word came up repeatedly in conversations about Martin: generosity. Consultant David Hobbs said generosity was the first thing he thinks of when considering Martin: "Martin is a generous person, from his many writings to his readiness to connect people to raise the bar in information management."
Sam Marshall mentioned Martin's "generosity of making connections and thinking about what other people would find helpful.”
"I can't think of anyone else with such a deep understanding of the search business or such a commitment to passing on that understanding to others," said Charlie Hull. Martin acted as mentor to many, even in circumstances where some might view them as competition. And he did so with wit, humor and a "soft approach to hard topics."
Thank You, Martin
Martin once wrote that the greatest praise someone could give him was: “It was a pleasure to work with you — you’ve made a real difference.”
So Martin, from the broader information management community, from the people cited in this article, from all of us at CMSWire and Reworked (and particularly from me), it was a pleasure to work with you. You’ve made a real difference.