Understanding IBM

Part 6. Thrashing

Sometimes when you're too busy, you don't get anything done. Have you ever noticed that? When you start one job, and something more urgent comes along, you drop the first thing and start the second. Then when something really vital comes up, you drop the second thing unfinished and move on to the third. Or perhaps you're just so anxious about completing *something* that you keep dropping whatever you're doing as soon as the going gets tough, hoping the next thing you try turns out to be much easier, so at least you'll have finished one thing. As a result, you end up getting absolutely nothing done!

A computer sometimes gets that way, too, if you overburden it with so many things to do that the time it takes to change jobs (also known as a context change) keeps it from finishing any one task. In computerese, this is known as *thrashing*. The computer keeps attention just long enough to forget the last thing and move on to the next, but no real work gets done. The computer seems "slow" when in reality it's moving very, very fast just to stay caught up.

Sometimes a company loses focus and begins doing the same thing, too. If the company is very large and scattered across many different kinds of products -- such as IBM -- it may lose focus and not have one consistent message across all fronts. When things get tough, the response may be similar to that of an overloaded computer. Each division or department demands attention, and the focus of funding, marketing, and manpower may begin flitting from project to project in an effort to keep everyone more or less happy and to make sure no one area is neglected or falls too far behind in the marketplace.

It seems that IBM has, until recently, had the problem of thrashing to an extreme degree. First the emphasis was going to be on mainframes, then on PCs, then on operating systems, then on microprocessors, then on PCs, then on something else. This meant that if the operating system issue began to be solved, somebody else would feel left out and need attention. IBM would lose focus just when it was beginning to succeed, which is what happened in the spring of 1995 when OS/2 was finally beginning to make some headway. One trade magazine even showed a picture of a blast of air sweeping into a room, touting the gale-force momentum that was beginning to build in favor of OS/2.

Just as quickly as that momentum appeared, it somehow evaporated as IBM thrashed over to something else: electronic commerce. Of course, e-commerce is vital for IBM's growth and just may become a key ingredient in their long-term success. However, the danger here is that IBM may at some point begin another cycle of thrashing and move to something new. The problem with thrashing is that it engenders a certain lack of credibility and trust in the marketplace. If a software vendor who was planning to go whole-hog for OS/2 development sees IBM pull back just when it was on the verge of success, how will this same vendor feel about supporting an IBM e-commerce initiative? Will they want to support IBM's PowerPC development, when IBM resumes that direction again?

There is something to be said for a slow, steady drizzle instead of a series of cloudbursts. Hopefully, IBM has finally caught on to the importance of sticking to a single, all-encompassing message. The Java and related open-standards momentum at IBM will hopefully be the sign of a long-term trend, instead of just the latest cycle of thrashing.

Most recent revision: January 9, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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