CIO Confidential: Partners, Customers and Orwell

FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - On the bookshelf in my office is a copy of The Winston Dictionary, Advanced Edition, printed in Chicago in 1946. I found it in a box in the closet 10 or 15 years ago, and my original reason for keeping it was purely sentimental. It was my mother's, given to her as a high school graduation gift to assist her in her studies at New York State College for Teachers at Buffalo--the 1946 equivalent of sending a kid off to university with a $3,000 laptop.

It's a wonderful, elegant book full of little illustrations, badly out-of-date maps, forgotten words and familiar words with unfamiliar definitions.

Strangely, it's also wonderful and reassuring for all the words and definitions it doesn't contain, like outsourcing, download and anything followed by .com.

It's so quaint, in fact, it defines partner as a noun! Over the years, and in spite of the online availability of Mr. Gates' dictionary-thesaurus, I've come to depend on it almost exclusively as a defense against our brave new world of invented vocabulary and tortured phrases where, suddenly and from nowhere, nouns become verbs and verbs become nouns. We twist and torture our language so much in the pursuit of our agenda that it's sometimes difficult to decipher the real message.

DO YOU KNOW WHAT "IS" IS? I got the most amusing letter from a salesman today, which is what started me thinking about this topic. I'll call this salesman Wylie (because that's his real name), a strikingly uncharismatic guy with a bad case of attention deficit disorder and enough irritating mannerisms to make coffee nervous. As background, I should tell you that we have a strategic sales alliance with Wylie's company--which is another way of saying we sell them a lot of stuff.

A few weeks ago, Wylie called to tell me that the president of his division wanted to come to town to meet me and discuss my department's decision not to standardize on his company's products. Wylie's proposal had far fewer features and was remarkably more expensive than the alternatives. Apparently, Wylie figured that I'd be so impressed by having the president of his company in my office that I'd reconsider and reverse our decision. To make a long meeting short, I offered to keep the peace by asking the review team to meet again with Wylie to make sure there were no misunderstandings in his proposal. As a result of that meeting, Wylie sent the letter I received today. Here's an excerpt:

"We appreciate your help in scheduling time for the review committee to reevaluate our offering. We met on Tuesday with the committee with the goal of developing a strategic relationship with your organization. We were very surprised to hear that your company did not feel there was an opportunity for us to collaborate over the next 18 months. It seems that there is a disconnect between the strategic relationship our companies have at an executive level and the relationship we have with your department. Do you have any thoughts?"

Now here's a helpful translation for those of you not initiated in "corpspeak":

"We met with your review team to try to convince them to change their minds and buy our stuff. They had the gall to say no. Our executives aren't going to like this. What are you going to do about it?"

Nice try, Wylie, but I get threatened like this at least 15 times a day.

We now see that Wylie is not, as we mistakenly assumed, a salesman. He is, in fact, a broker in strategic relationships.

Examples of tortured and distorted language are everywhere. One of the most damaging illustrations happened, as you'll recall, about 10 years ago when some of us, myself included, decided it would be a good idea to have our IT people call their coworkers and the users of our systems our customers. This, we thought, was a sure way to bring our programmers and design analysts down to earth and get them to concentrate on those things the users thought important.

The basis of this approach was the sound and well-proven Orwellian notion that if you can get people to speak in a certain way, you can get them to think in a certain way. This is what the politically correct movement is all about. It's words used as weapons, as dogma, in an effort to retool our attitudes and prejudices. When the consultants on your ERP implementation ask for more money, the reason most often given is "creeping complexity," implying some fault on your part, instead of calling it "receding oversimplification," which would be their error.

Do not think of the writer as short, cranky and balding, think of me as vertically, attitudinally and follicly challenged.

Naturally, the "customer" plan worked perfectly, and the results have been an unmitigated disaster. The mystery is not why it was a disaster but why we didn't see this train wreck coming in the glare of the twisted logic we were promoting. That being: System users are our customers; customers are always right; hence, system users are always right.

Someday we'll look back on this, laugh nervously and change the subject.

Let's consider, for a moment, the magnitude of these nested absurdities. First nobody and nothing is always anything. A recent Gallup Poll revealed that 18 percent of Americans are under the impression that the sun revolves around the earth. Might we then assume that these 54 million people could occasionally be wrong about other, less obvious stuff?

The wants and needs of systems users--and their importance to the business--are in no way comparable to those of our business's real "green money" customers.

Dubbing the guy or gal in the next row of cubicles a customer had the effect of imbuing that person with all the status and influence (and attitude, I might add) of those people who were plunking down the hard cash that was keeping us in business. Almost overnight, IT people went from being those mysterious peers in the lab coats to being administrative subordinates, incapable of comprehending the needs of the business, and the universal cause of every other department's shortfall in performance.

LANGUAGE IS A POWERFUL THING. This "user as customer" thing also had an unexpected and disastrous impact on the CIO role. A few years after we started using this terminology, it became fashionable among big companies to select CIOs based, believe it or not, on the magnitude of their ignorance of technology. The thinking was that progressive companies should not want or need a person with an IT background running IT. To get real results, they should hire a "business" person whom they would then surround with technical people to get things implemented (a notion heartily endorsed by the consulting industry).

The fad disappeared suddenly when CEOs around the country came to the shocking realization that their CIOs didn't know how any of their technology worked.

(The kind of truly brilliant insight that got these men and women to the CEO position in the first place.) I have committed every day of the last five or so years to trying to reverse this terrible mistake and, in the process, trying to reestablish my department as a full contributing partner in the success of the business. It's been a long, hard road. To this day, and in spite of my best efforts, there are many users who insist on using the word customer when referring to themselves. In fact, I still hear it quite often from CIOs.

In order to make meaningful progress in this regard, we must commit to characterizing things and ideas as they truly are, both inside and outside our companies--as painful as that might be at times. This will, over time, clarify our roles and enhance the contributions we work so hard to make.

Might I suggest we adopt The Winston Dictionary, 1946 edition, as our standard?

Mom would be so proud.

Have you had a misadventure caused by the use and abuse of corporate euphemism?

Share it with other readers at comment.cio.com. Anonymous has been a CIO at household-name companies in various industries for more than 12 years. He welcomes mail from customers and users alike at confidential@cio.com.

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