Understanding IBM

Part 22. Catcher in the Rye

In J.D. Salinger's classic Catcher in the Rye, protagonist Holden Caulfield spends the entire novel telling his psychiatrist why he has persistent dreams of saving children from wandering off a cliff. He sees them a little potential victims, wandering in a field of tall rye grass, and his job is to catch them one by one before they fall off the cliff to their deaths.

Many people have a similar belief that they should spend at least part of their lives trying to help other folks avoid disaster. Volunteerism and charitable works are a major part of American society, and to some extent most societies around the earth feel a sense of responsibility to help others. However, the corporate world is often molded with the opposite motivations: take whatever you can get away from society. "Live and Let Die." The ultracompetitive world of the big corporations slugging it out for dominance has little time for charity, one would think. Yet Mobil supports public television very openly; other corporations support various charities as well. So we have this dichotomy between giving and taking in the corporate world. Big companies need to take to stay alive and prosper, but they need to give a little to be considered good citizens.

However, this does not mean that every good thing that IBM or other companies do should be considered an act of charity. The fact that IBM has been a leader in warning people about the challenge of Year2000 compliance is not just being a "nice guy." It is a core requirement for the IBM's own continued success. If the banking systems fails, it doesn't really matter how good IBM's products are, or how loyal its customers are, or even if it finally figures out how to market its products effectively. If the banking or other key commercial systems -- which are the bread and butter of IBM's customer base -- do a face-plant on January 1 of the double-zero year, IBM is automatically out of business along with the rest of the economy. More than just IBM's reputation is at stake here. Having chosen to occupy a key position in the gears of the global economy, IBM must also endure the heavy responsibility of maintaining those gears lubricated and turning smoothly, no matter what upcoming events are scheduled.

Thus, IBM faces a Holden Caulfield-like decision: If they can't keep *all* the companies from falling off the Year2000 cliff, which ones shall they save? Why, they ought to save the ones who can help save others, of course. Saving the consumers and SOHO businesses from Year2000 problems and other software nightmares might be a very noble thing to do, but in the long run it would just be an act of charity -- giving a few coins to a street person. Instead, IBM recognizes that it must dole out its attention and focus its energies on the key banking, transportation, and other big commercial sectors of the economy. This is not just because that's where the money is; rather, if these folks don't survive the Year2000 challenge, they won't be around to help anyone else out afterwards.

Most recent revision: May 23, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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