06:16 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin

The Observer: Of Sealing Wax And Cabbages, Of Innovators And Copycats

Being fashionable often benefits those who imitate, says Lou Bertin, but it's time to look at change and change agents and see just who's worth imitating.

"Fashion is something barbarous, for it produces innovation without reason and imitation without benefit." Thus wrote George Santayana a century ago in The Life of Reason. It's a fool's errand to disagree with ole' Georgie, but with the energy that comes with the transiting of the obliquity of the ecliptic (as the nuns who taught me in grammar school would advise, "if you don't know what it means, look it up"), I'll give it a shot.

Lord knows we've all seen enough of the "innovation without reason" part of Santayana's observation. I believe it was known as the " explosion' and resulting implosion. Sic transit hysteria. In that case, enough was too much, as would be any further discussion of that particular folly.

I will, though, take question with the "imitation without benefit" portion of Santayana's wisdom. If fashion is defined as something that attracts sufficient favorable attention (and results) that it draws imitators and emulators, I think fashion can be a wonderful thing. Specifically, if "fashion" is defined as the very good practices embodied by the best and most enlightened outfits out there, then I'm compelled to posit that imitation is almost always a benefit-bearing beast.

Hearteningly, we're now well into a period where we're blessed with fashions that will surely pass the test of time and are well worth imitating for the benefits they've borne to the trend-setters and will bear to those wise enough to imitate the fashion-forward bunch.

I could cite dozens of examples, but a couple come immediately to mind. They range from the sublime--think of the subtle but utterly compelling re-making of IBM--to the supremely functional--think of Georgia Marsh, agency expert for identity policy and management in the United States' Government Services Administration's Office of Electronic Government and Technology's Office of Governmentwide Policy (and if ever there were a case for government simplification, Georgia's title is Exhibit A) striving to have trusted and regulated authenticators of individual citizens' identities take some responsibility for authentication of same.

Neither IBM nor the estimable Ms. Marsh (full confession time: Georgia is a great friend to InformationWeek and has been a contributor to our conferences and events) are breaking new ground. What they're doing is following fashion. They're emulating as fully as they possibly can the things that have made other organizations successful and that's a wonderful thing. There's no benefit to reinventing the wheel and none of us get extra points for doing things the hard way, though our behaviors occasionally betray a preference for delivering at least the impression of enormous struggle to accomplish the obvious.

Here's where following fashion, despite Santayana's admonitions, can indeed provide benefit.

For its part, IBM is demonstrating that a bone-deep will to focus on customer needs pays off. IBM knows that there's a huge and festering resentment out there among organizations that have been force-fed "solutions" that suit either "standards" or solutions-provider self interests. So what does it do? IBM merely sets about the business of turning the proverbial aircraft carrier on a dime. Easy? Nope. Necessary? Probably not; IBM could have coasted and waited "the Linux thing" out. The right thing? Absolutely. It says here that there's a sea change afoot and that IBM has aligned itself with the winner. Scary and risky for IBM; ultimately smart and beneficial.

Today, technology patrons are voting and will vote with increasing frequency over the course of 2004 in this election-without-end. Don't bet on the incumbent. Is IBM following fashion? Of course. Sooner or later, if any outfit takes care of its customers, those customers will take care of it. Trouble is, the outfit may need to change for that to happen. The outfit known as IBM is doing so.

As for Marsh and her supremely commendable quest, we're dealing with different forces. There's a federal government paying lip service to the embrace of E-government, but with no teeth to make its laudable goal happen. We have entrenched public servants too-often looking to preserve the status quo, for fear that change is their enemy. Most significantly, there are no economic or competitive imperatives impelling change.

Depressingly, the answer among the "experienced" federal government crowd in D.C. skews heavily towards windy self-defenses and utterly transparent citations of "unfavorable" contracting, procurement, personnel-management, technology-management and "customer needs" policies. Hooey!

Marsh, during her service to the state of Illinois, has proven that change can happen, should happen, and that both state agencies and constituents ultimately benefit. Her quest to have government let go of what it's bad at and let government-regulated outfits that are good at authenticating individuals authenticate individuals (think banks) handle same appears to be a no brainer. We'll see if the embrace of "best practices" takes Georgia far quickly or easily.

But what's important is that imitation of the sane, the sensible, or the proven remains valuable. Fashion or no fashion, if it works in one place, it's likely to work (in some adapted form) in another.

"Here's to the copycats" strikes me as an odd admonition, but it fits ... now more than ever, it seems. All that it's missing is the precursor "Here's to the innovators" wish, without which fashion trends would never be set.

At the end of this piece and at the start of the year, here's to both, wherever they may be and however they make a difference.

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

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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