Understanding IBM

Part 3. The Old School

There is a certain caricatured establishment known as The Old School. The mentality and the personality of John Houseman in "The Paper Chase" comes to mind, a grumpy, upper-crust sort of person with an attitude of seriousness and proper manners. The Old School involves a certain set of values and priorities -- values such as honesty, integrity, and hard work; priorities such as financial success, maintaining a good reputation, and promoting discipline. It was always interesting to watch episodes of confrontation between the Old School and what might be termed the "New Breed," and it is just as interesting to watch the confrontation today in the marketplace.

Some companies tend to eschew fancy advertisments, loud color schemes, and brash attitudes for simpler presentations that show what works. Often people will complain that such a company's commercials are bland or boring or don't seem to have a point. This shows that people today have come to expect excitement and enthusiasm from their product suppliers. It seems as though asking the tough questions about reliability, cost effectiveness, and long-term benefits just don't enter into the picture any more. People seem to be more easily swayed by a jingle than by a piece of evidence. This implies that a company that brags a lot can become very successful, while a quiet company with great products may have trouble succeeding in the marketplace.

Among the most obvious examples of the Old School mentality is IBM. In this case, Old School has nothing to do with stupid, narrow-minded viewpoints like racism, sexism, or nationalism; instead, it's about putting the quality of the products ahead of the quality of the advertisements. This set of priorities is as endemic to an Old School company as a person's own personality. This means, of course, that this company's products may necessarily only appeal to a narrow segment of the public or the business community. It is really difficult to see how an Old School company will succeed in selling products to Hollywood or to television networks, for example.

On the other hand, people who ask "What is this thing IBM has about banks?" are probably putting the cart before the horse. They ought just as well to ask "What is this thing the banks have about IBM?" Yes, why indeed do banks in particular have a high degree of trust in IBM, even when much of the marketplace would like to marginalize and discount IBM from the scene?

It is because banks are themselves very, very Old School. Banks are by-the-numbers institutions, just like IBM and a handful of other big, older companies. Old School trusts Old School, but it does not trust the New Breed any more than a bank entrusts its money to a freak show. Similarly, the New Breed look down on the older companies as stodgy and boring. The problem with IBM's position in today's computer marketplace thus has far more to do with the lack of appreciation for discipline, mental rigor, and manners in today's society than it does with IBM's line of products.

Most recent revision: January 3, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

E-MAIL: os2headquarters@mindspring.com