Understanding IBM

Part 12. The Right Answer

Technologists always love to find the "right" answer to a problem, whether the problem is a mathematical puzzle, a societal issue, or a simple application of principles in their job assignment. There is a deep sense of pleasure that derives from not only finding the "right" or "best" solution, but also being able to certify that it is indeed the optimum answer by performing a rigorous mathematical proof. Simply being able to logically prove that the answer is the most correct and efficient one gives a person a sense of power, a sense of satisfaction in having mastery over some small thing in life. It may be difficult to satisfy customers or to keep order in one's social life, but at least the rules of mathematics and the laws of physics are stable, reliable, and learnable. A person can at least be master of their own knowledge.

However, translating this culture of "right" answers into the consumer marketplace is difficult. First of all, there is the issue of competition. Somebody else might have the "right" answer in their product as well; then the struggle to make a profit boils down to keeping a signficant market share by offering some incentive to the consumer: a lower price, nicer packaging, or some slick marketing. Having the "right" answer is not a certain advantage, since other companies can provide the "right" answer also. Often the competitor decides that having the "right" answer is not worth the cost of doing so, and provides a "bad" answer but packaged in a nice, appealing form. The question is whether the consumer will purchase on the basis of "right" or on the basis of "cute."

Here we get to the heart of the matter: most consumers are (sadly?) not technologists. Particularly in the U.S., there is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and overt bias against students who are avid proponents of getting "right" answers. A student in the first ten grades of public school is likely to be ostracized or even physically beaten if they are known as a "brain" or if they conform to the official school policies of quietness, cleanliness, and obedience to authority. Television and movie programs consistently represent scientists and engineers as socially inept fools with one-track minds, producing anti-heroes or anti-role models that subconsciously tell children: don't be smart, it's weird to be smart.

An entire generation has grown to adulthood under this cultural regime, and thus today's decisionmakers are basically lacking in the technologist's zest and enthusiasm for the "right" answer. Instead, they want the "easy" answer, the "no-brainer," the generic "whatever everyone else is getting" of the mass merchandiser. In this environment IBM, with its old-school "right answer" culture, finds significant opposition in its attempts to sell superior solutions. A culture of conformity and mediocrity has become the standard in the consumer marketplace, a culture that considers McDonald's, Radio Shack, and Microsoft as acceptable but sneers at IBM and classical music. The question is not whether IBM has the "right" answers, but rather, does anybody care any more?

Most recent revision: January 24, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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