Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twitter, Pain, and the Livery Stable Blues: Culture Trumps Technology

Not long ago I used my great-grandmother and her chicken-plucking machine to suggest ways in which gender can influence the adoption of new technology.

Recently, I’ve stumbled across a series of examples which focus more broadly on ways that culture—at least all of those phobias we classify as culture--can speed or retard the adoption of technology.
For example, when Ashton Kutcher began using Twitter, his adoring fan base embraced the messaging technology. Meanwhile, much of the rest of America continued to read and revel in a slew of “I don’t get it” articles. Now, what happens if Americans decide Twitter has been the key to supporting democratic resistance in Iran? How much of a boost will accrue to Twitter if the technology is—culturally speaking--suddenly part of the Great American Way?

Sometimes culture hurts. The first operation under anesthetic occurred on October 16, 1846, a momentous day that forever changed medicine. (Indeed, the room where the operation took place at the Massachusetts General Hospital is still called the Ether Dome.) So, it might seem odd that the existence of ether and its benefit had been common knowledge for decades, and the idea that anesthesia (via nitrous oxide) could extinguish pain had been recorded as early as 1525.
Over 300 years of unnecessary and excruciating pain. Why?

Before 1846, prevailing religious and medical opinion held that pain was an essential part of the human condition, not to mention God’s way of keeping us from harming ourselves. Much of the medical establishment believed it was pain that kept a patient alive during a procedure. Doctors who endorsed pain-relievers, therefore, were cranks who preyed on the fear of their patients, frightening others from having surgery and undermining public health.

Despite the miracle of 1846, it would take the rest of the nineteenth century to convince the entire medical establishment that pain was unnecessary, as well as confirmation from the Pope in 1957 that anesthetics were not an obstacle to interior purification. (See Mike Jay’s complete and excellent article here.)

You laugh, I know, but have you heard your wife after her (male) obstetrician rolled his eyes when she requested an epidural during delivery? The moral disapprobation by those who don’t suffer pain, directed at those who must, continues, regardless of the technology at our disposal.

In 1917 Victor recorded a group of New Orleans musicians known as the Original Dixieland Jass Band in what is generally regarded as the first commercial recorded jazz. The two songs, Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step, went on to sell millions of records. Millions. In 1917. Indeed, this first jazz record annihilated the reigning record champs, Enrico Caruso and the John Phillip Sousa band.

What happened next? Victor went on to release dozens of records to exploit the commercial success of jazz, right?
Nope. Victor disassociated itself from jazz. So did Columbia. One industry magazine claimed that “the future of our industry lies in encouraging the sale of high-priced goods and the best records. . .[not] cheap machines and jazz records.”

The problem, culturally speaking, was that high-brow, white America associated jazz with blacks and illegitimate activities. (Jazz, the myth went, was created in the brothels of New Orleans). Thomas Edison expressed his disdain for jazz, as did the wives of Messrs. Morgan, Harriman and Phipps. The Catholic Church and Salvation Army vigorously fought jazz. The founder and president of Victor was the top financial contributor to the Republican Party in 1928, putting him in the sphere of Mellon, Rockefeller and Guggenheim. The vice president of Victor married into the family that produced John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

You see the problem. Victor stumbled into a cultural train wreck and could only recover by backing away from tainted commercial success with new recordings of European operatic and classical music that would appeal to the “best class” of people.

(So as not to make this post too long, I’ll simply say: jazz prevailed. So as not to completely confuse the subject, the Original Dixieland Jass Band was composed of white musicians. But that’s a different post for a different day.)

Sometimes the culture wars play out in a smaller technology community. In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman tells the fascinating story of how IBM—a poster child for proprietary software in 1998—approached the open source Apache community. “IBM said, ‘We would like to figure out how we can use [Apache] and not get flamed by the Internet community.’” IBM understood that culture trumps technology, and their subsequent measured, respectful approach to the open source community led to the incorporation of Apache into WebSphere; today, Apache powers two-thirds of the Web sites in the world.

On an even smaller scale, and in motion today, the battle to acquire Silicon Valley’s Data Domain between neighbor NetApp and “buttoned-down East Coast EMC” is just such a clash of cultures. (See here.) The Wall Street Journal reported, “Silicon Valley companies don’t like being taken over by out-of-towners, especially East Coasters like EMC.” Similar cultural angst played out when Sun Microsystems rushed into the arms of Oracle, escaping big, bad IBM.

Was that the best result for investors? Will Data Domain allow culture to supersede value creation? This is not an inconsequential point some culture-deaf shareholder might make to a CEO.

Similarly, a patient might well have argued to his surgeon in 1840 that God had other ways to let him know he was human than having him suffer through an amputation.

Technology matters a lot. But, as Twitter may find out with their impressive showing in Iran, culture often matters more.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Interviewing the Blunt CEO

Not long ago, I blogged on a terrific interview with the CEO of Amgen, one of a series of CEO interviews featured in "Corner Office," Adam Bryant’s weekly column in the Sunday New York Times.

Since then, I’ve read all of Bryant’s interviews, which capture the thoughts of such luminaries as Will Wright (Sims, Spore, StupidFunClub), Clarence Otis Jr. (Darden), Dany Levy (, Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), Eduardo Castro-Wright (Wal-Mart), Anne Mulcahy (Xerox), Ken Sharer (Amgen), John Donahoe (eBay), Terry Lundgren (Macy’s), Nell Minow (Corporate Library), Richard Anderson (Delta Air Lines), Robert Iger (Disney), James Schiro (Zurich Financial Services), and Greg Brenneman (CCMP).

That’s a pretty heady line-up, and combined, the repository of some real leadership and organizational wisdom.

With that in mind, I’ve distilled the interviews into one, very blunt interview that tries to capture the flavor of what these CEOs are saying (kind of what Pandora does for music). Note that none of them actually said what I wrote below (mostly); it’s just my best guess at what, with a few beers and not being quoted in the Sunday New York Times, they were really saying. Think of it as an unvarnished interview with the “blunt CEO.”

Q: Tell me about meetings.

A: They take a lot of my time, and I don’t like them much, so here are my rules: Show up on time or I’ll kill you. End in about an hour or I’ll kill you. Send me the PowerPoint in advance and make sure everyone has read it before the meeting, cause if you take “the long and winding road” through every slide, I’ll kill you.

Q: Anything surprise you about the CEO job?

A: Everything I say is amplified. My thinking-out-loud can stop a discussion. A suggestion becomes a mandate. I have to be very careful, go slow, ask questions. People often take what I say, even my musings, at face value. (In fact, about that “killing stuff” in the first question--can we forget I said that?)

Q: What are your weaknesses?

A: I’m impatient. I’m anxious. I’m a little neurotic. I can have a bad temper. I run people over if I’m not careful. I can’t always stay focused on you when you’re answering a question because my mind is already on to the next point. I need to listen better. I know that, and I’m trying. Really.

Q: What annoys you most?

A: When people dump a problem on me and haven’t worked a solution. In fact, one way I assess talent is to look for the people who are creating big, far-ranging, creative solutions to our biggest problems. Don’t drop the Rubik’s Cube in my office unless you have a plan for twisting it into shape.

Q: Anything else?

A: Complicated stuff. Business isn’t easy but it should be simple. There are only three or four things that we can focus on as an organization at any one time. My job is to make sure everyone knows what they are. Your job is to stay focused on them, and keep your team focused.

Q: Anything else?

A: I should be able to tell you who we are and what we do and stand for in about ten seconds, without any buzz or double-talk. Likewise, when I ask you a question about your business, you should keep the answer very focused. Once you launch into a monologue I know you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Q: Anything else?

A: It’s hard sometimes for me to find the balance between optimism and realism. And it stinks when good people are working hard and being successful but the economy and environment keep me from rewarding them as they deserve.

Q: What do you look for in employees?

A: IQ. Emotional intelligence. Integrity. Passionate curiosity. Energy. The ability to connect the dots across disciplines and throughout the environment. Tech-savvy. Great communication skills; in fact, if you can’t write, I probably won’t hire you.

Q: How do you keep up with the business?

A: I stay in touch by staying in touch. I get into the field two days a week or more. That makes some of my employees uncomfortable, but being CEO can be a solitary job. I can’t function without unvarnished feedback from customers, and employees who deal with customers. And I’m used to incoming missiles, so don’t be afraid to launch them.

I also seek really candid feedback from HR and my board. I don’t like it any better than you do, and I ignore about a third of it (just like you do), but the rest is indispensible.

Q: How do you manage your time?

A: I get up early, I exercise, I reserve time to think and stay organized, and I keep my meetings efficient. I’m hooked on the Blackberry/iPhone. But if you use yours in a meeting, I’ll kill you.

Q: Anything else?

A: Yes, can we strike that last comment?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Problem with Statues

Since writing about the concept of historical postcards, I’ve stumbled upon a few, very current examples of how our history is purposefully shaped by our present. It's an old and powerful idea, though at odds with our sense that the past is fixed.  

In fact, our efforts to control the past often exceed those we invest in setting our future.

Where the past and present often meet most violently is in our statues, those monuments intended to be permanent reflections of great people and great ideas.  Some examples:

When Lafayette made his triumphant tour of the United States, his last stop was to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. On June 17, 1825 he marched with 30,000 spectators (including 40 veterans of the battle) to the dedication on the hill, which he termed his “North Star.” Bunker Hill was the quintessential moment for many in the Revolutionary generation, the first moment the colonists realized they could stand toe-to-toe with the British. Today, there’s a budget-driven movement in Massachusetts to eliminate Bunker Hill Day (June 17) as a paid day-off for government and schools in Boston’s Suffolk County. Lafayette’s “North Star" is yielding to financial griping over “pointless days off.”

Around Baillet-en-France, French archaeologists have unearthed dozens of nine-foot, 1937 era Soviet-built sculptures (like a tank driver and a textile worker) honoring the international brotherhood of workers. Straight from the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair, the Soviets gave some of the statues to the French, but when Communism fell out-of-favor the statues were buried. Now resurrected, the statues remain problematic, as Stalin-era art is not entirely simpatico with modern France.

Back in America, we’re moving statues around, too. Earlier this month a statue of Ronald Reagan was installed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Each state is allowed two statues, and it is a big deal to change them: both chambers of a state legislature must vote, the governor must endorse the decision and then the federal government is petitioned. So who got knocked out by Reagan this time? Thomas Starr King, a Universalist minister and “the orator who saved the nation,” credited by Lincoln as keeping California in the union. That’s not a bad resume, but obviously not enough to keep Reagan out of the rotunda.

With all of this statuary in motion, I direct your attention to a book by James W. Loewen (author of the fabulous Lies My Teacher Told Me) called Lies Across America. In it, Loewen visits and discusses the sites of statues and monuments which do more to obscure history than enlighten it. He also gives us his top 20 candidates for toppling, a few of which I list here:

Every statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who appears 32 times in Tennessee (more than Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson combined). A brilliant cavalry commander with a mixed military career, he became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

The marker for the “horrible Indian massacre” of 1861 in Almo, Idaho, should at least be taken to a museum, since the event it described never happened.

Statues of Christopher Columbus, or at least the ones in California and Ohio claiming he proved the earth was round.

The most hated monument in America, that celebrating the White League in New Orleans.
Perhaps Americans could steal a page from the Spanish, whose socialist government has banned fascist icons. That means Gen. Francisco Franco’s statue was uprooted from the city square of Santander and banished to a local museum last December. The Spanish government reasons that no Nazi symbols are allowed in Germany, no statues to Mussolini are on display on Italian streets—why should the symbol of their painful past be on public display?

In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace reminds us that Serbian troops besieging cities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s made a point of blowing up museums, monuments, libraries, and archives. It was, he says, an effort at “historic cleansing.”

It is a reminder that we move history at will--even the big, heavy variety--to suit the purposes of the present.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Beavers Redux: Making the New York Times

Last November I wrote about the beavers raising havoc in our neighborhood, flooding the backyards of our downhill neighbors.

Today, at least in our little corner of the universe, we can claim victory: no dam, no beavers, no flooding. I don't know how it happened or where they went, but I do know for a fact that the neighbors who broke the dam didn't move the sticks nearly far enough away from the stream. So, when the beavers return--and they will, though, again, I don't know how--they will have ample ammunition for their new assault.

I mention this because today, the New York Times highlighted the explosion of the Massachusetts beaver here. As one expert said, "There are at least 30,000 beavers all over the state. . .[each of] which can reach 60 pounds and are the largest rodents in North America. . .Beavers are the ultimate ecosystems engineers."

My response: A large, pervasive, tenacious, industrious ecoengineer rodent is, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, still a rodent.

Now that they've made the New York Times, I'll let you know when their national tour reaches our neighborhood again.

Monday, June 8, 2009

What's the Opposite of an Historical Postcard?

Last August I read about the Battle of New Orleans and offered the idea of “historical postcards”-- those events that are seared into the memory of an entire generation.

At the time I suggested five postcards for the late Baby Boomers: 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the moon landing, MLK, and JFK.

I also wondered about the “Stan Musial problem,” which Bill James offered up in his marvelous Historical Baseball Abstract (1986): “The image of Musial seems to be fading quickly. Maybe I'm wrong, but it doesn't seem to me that you hear much about him anymore, compared to such comparable stars as Mantle, Williams, Mays and DiMaggio, and to the extent that you do hear of him it doesn't seem that the image is very sharp. . .He makes a better statue.”

Why does that happen, I wonder? It's almost the reverse of the historical postcard, when an event or person who is vibrant and important in public life seems to rapidly fade once her or she is no longer practicing their craft.

Jim Thorpe was voted the greatest athlete of the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Where’d he go?  Mary Pickford was the most popular actress and maybe best-known woman in the world, auctioning off one of her curls for $15,000 to raise money during WWI. Where’d she go?

The Mexican-American War of 1846—it's the war in which Winfield Scott taught Grant and Lee how to fight, the war that saw at Veracruz the most dramatic amphibious landing before D-Day--not to mention the subsequent securing of the “Halls of Montezumas” in Mexico City. Long afterward, the son of Dwight Eisenhower would call Winfield Scott “the most capable soldier this country has ever produced.”  Where did Scott go? 

For that matter, what happened to George Marshall, who raised an army of 7 million men and was said to be the closest thing to George Washington that America produced in the 20th century?

Ever since my post on historical postcards, I've been wondering about cultural memory.  It's a fascinating puzzle--this idea of a national lost and found bin--even in the business world.  It would be hard for most Americans to name one CEO from the Fortune 500 of 1976, even though these men and women were giants of their time. Malcolm Gladwell has even opined that Steve Jobs will be forgotten someday.  Hard to believe?  Ask Jim Thorpe.  Ask Mary Pickford.

For that matter, ask Clifton C. Garvin, Jr. who, in 1976, was CEO of Exxon, the largest corporation in America.