Give me a vision and I'll sit and talk to customers about it for three hours in a conference room. Wrong, shouts Lou Bertin.

Lou Bertin, Contributor

November 26, 2002

4 Min Read

Chatting with the irreplaceable Don Imus the other morning, former IBM chairman Lou Gerstner succinctly described the mindset he encountered upon taking the helm at IBM. "The people inside IBM at the time said 'Give me a vision and I'll sit and talk to customers about it for three hours in a conference room.' That was exactly wrong ... people were talking exactly when they should have been listening."

Those words of Gerstner's should be the ones encased in elaborate frames at the entrances to technology companies--or any other company, for that matter--instead of the too-often sappy mission statements that succeed only in saying so much they say nothing.

[Before I go any further, three disclosures. Disclosure one: Years ago, before Gerstner's tenure, I did work on IBM's behalf related to the launch of the ES-9000 and System 390 lines (yes, it was that long ago). I also think Gerstner's an enormously smart guy and this has nothing to do with the fact that he and I attended the same high school. Disclosure two: During that time, I got to know Irving Wladawsky-Berger, now vice president of technology and strategy at IBM's Server Group. I admired him then and admire him even more now. More about Irving later. Disclosure three: With apologies to InformationWeek's designated "national treasures" Jack Soat and Rusty Weston, I nominate Imus as the first InformationWeek outsider for such designation; Imus consistently gets more from his interview subjects than any other practitioner of that art.]

So it was that recent morning when Gerstner--holding forth on a media tour promoting his new book "Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?"--said one of the first emotions he experienced at IBM's helm was exasperation at the insularity of his new outfit. His exasperation was well-founded then and, unfortunately, the causes of same appear to be creeping back into standard vendor behavior now at precisely a time when customers simply want something that will take their pain away and not windy, self-serving, needlessly arcane explanations from vendors about how their particular form of aspirin works.

Gerstner's diagnosis then is my experience now. Vision is important, but vision is inherently an internalized phenomenon. It's the result of ceaselessly asking what can I (and by extension, one's enterprise) do to be more valuable to ... pick one or all: my customers, my customers, or my customers?

Beyond that, all customers care about is whether that "aspirin" an organization has envisioned fits into the customer's internal vision. The vendor's case either will or won't be successful, based on myriad customer-specific considerations. Customer-centricity is important, but to include that as part of a mission statement, much less a marketing message, is to restate what should be the obvious. Certainly, it's no cause for chest-thumping.

This brings me to IBM's concept of grid-based utility computing, developed on Gerstner's watch and overseen then and now by Wladawsky-Berger. Is it visionary? I certainly think so and have held forth on same in this space. The potential of the concept, it says here, is astonishing.

Instructive, though, is how IBM went about holding a "coming out" party for its forthcoming service. Instead of wrapping itself in the IBM flag and fulminating about how utility computing will "change the nature of corporate computing as we now know it" or some other such hooey, IBM (fancifully, to be sure) explained how it works by illustrating how organizations possessed of visions of their own will be able to take advantage of linkages of computing power. "Here's our new service," IBM seemed to say, "this is why we think it will be valuable to you and here's our value proposition if you're interested in pursuing it. Got any questions? We'll be happy to help."

The technique is the soul of simplicity at a time when the human instinct toward needless complication of even the mundane seems to again be taking hold. Those of you I meet with face-to-face weekly at InformationWeek roundtables and forums have made it plain that the approach that works best is for vendors to "listen, learn, and then act." Certainly, the astute among vendors who pick up the lunch tabs at such roundtables have made hay heeding that simple, unmistakable customer directive.

Writing this as I am in the days approaching Thanksgiving, I'm inclined to look at the positive. I'm drawn to a comment Winston Churchill made looking back upon World War II when he said "Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing, after they've exhausted the alternatives." So it is among the family of vendors where some, as ever, appear simply to be smarter than their siblings and are getting to that "right thing" faster than the rest.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Larry Olson, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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