Not coping with non-disclosure

Computerworld editor Anthony Doesburg gets frustrated by the lack of information vendors provide when releasing their financial results...regardless of how good the lunch they put on is.

I freely admit it, it's a slow week, made all the worse by losing 24 hours to Auckland Anniversary Day. Not that I'd ever voluntarily give up a public holiday (that goes for Queen's Birthday, as well, despite the fact that I'd willingly give up the queen) for the sake of being at the office.

But publishing doesn't stop just because a bunch of Aucklanders want to go sailing, so we're left to do the same amount of work in 20% less time. Which is an elaborate excuse for dusting off a personal bug-bear as the subject of this week's editorial, in place of the usual insightful and thoroughly researched column.

With a bit of luck my bugbear will turn out to be not entirely personal; but the brief bit of research I did before starting to pound the keyboard wasn't encouraging on that score. When I tried my obsession out on an IT manager I consult from time to time to test some half-baked theory I might have had about the industry, his response was "I don't give a frog's fat one". I'm not familiar with the expression but thought it inadvisable to ask him to elaborate; it was plain enough that the issue didn't particularly excite him.

It's excited me for quite some time, though, and now's my chance to get it out in the open. What I'm on about is the ritual, engaged in by some IT companies four times a year, of releasing -- or not, as is more often the case -- financial results. I'm talking in particular about subsidiaries of US companies.

How can that be a source of annoyance? After all, the numbers are usually served up with a fine lunch in pleasant surroundings. All well and good, but it's seldom the complete picture that's presented, and that's what gets my goat. There we are, eager to bring news of extraordinary vendor success to a readership hopefully panting in anticipation, and all we typically have to work with is one meagre number. Naturally, such studiedly incomplete data demands sinister interpretation.

Last week, for example, Unisys New Zealand told us how it did business worth $176 million last year, "up 16% on the year before", according to the press release. Well done. And what about the bottom line? Was that similarly enlarged?

"Er, sorry, that's not for public disclosure." Do we take from that, then, that the company made a loss? "No, we were profitable." Okay, so you made $1? "I'm constrained in what I can tell yo, but we met our tough US-set target."

Believe it or not, Unisys is comparatively generous with information. Microsoft, as another example, expects us to get by merely knowing that "revenue was up 20%", or whatever the amount might be; from what to what is left unsaid, but somehow we're still supposed to find that newsworthy.

The probing journalist is left to wonder whether dark secrets are being concealed, a suspicion confirmed when a Companies Office search showed last week that Computer Associates ("revenue up 15%", was the official line) reported a $3 million loss in the March 31, 2000 year. CA protested that that was merely to conform with US accounting convention and, really, the company was in the black. Really. But if Companies Office records aren't to be relied upon, and no other details are forthcoming, what are we to believe?

Oddly enough, the company with the spottiest financial history of the past few years, IBM New Zealand, is the most open about its performance. This year it was able to report a profit, but that's after a few years of losses. Its frankness is refreshing in an industry that specialises in spin; I wish it was contagious.

But perhaps I should dismount my high horse. I imagined this issue might matter to buyers of IT products and services, who could have concerns about the longevity of suppliers. The answer seems to be yes and no. "Completely bizarroo," is how my IT manager friend views the various degrees of non-disclosure that are common. "All I care about is whether they're laying off zillions of staff or filing for bankruptcy protection." If that's the way you feel about it …

Just how do you feel about it? Tell Doesburg by emailing him at anthony_doesburg@idg.co.nz.

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