Strategy's Limits: A chat with Ernest von Simson

The longtime IT consultant and industry observer talks about his new book

By , IDG News Service |  Business

Von Simson, who took two years to write the book, used the nearly 100 research reports produced by his company, artfully weaving information from those with his memories to create case studies whose "intention is to show how many barriers to change there are that you don't even think of," von Simson says. How leaders navigate those barriers is of keen interest to von Simson.

The book at times gives a behind-the-scenes view of what came to be major IT news events -- von Simson recalls visiting Microsoft headquarters the morning after Gates knew that the U.S. Department of Justice was "entirely serious" in its threats to file an antitrust suit against the company. "One unshaven and unwashed executive after another came into our meeting room," he writes. "The management team looked as if it had been closeted all night trying to frame a suitable response. Most rushed out after a few minutes. Chief scientist Nathan Myhrvold had apparently been asked to spend more time than usual with the visitors, so he distracted us with future technology, answering our questions with what seemed to us amazing civility and patience.

"Finally, Bill arrived, looking equally unkempt, and launched a nonstop, breathless rant. We decided not to take notes in deference to his disheveled state of mind. But I recollected angry, high-pitched diatribes against Joel Klein, the assistant attorney general who headed the Justice Department's antitrust division; the technological ignorance displayed by the government; and the popular resentment against successful people who have made lots of money."

That he continues to be witness to moments akin to those is why von Simson remains circumspect when it comes to whom he talks to about his work. The Research Board's mission required the discretion of von Simson and co-founder Naomi Seligman, who is also von Simson's wife -- they fell in love, he explains in the book's preface, as opposed to waging "all-out war" after she became his boss (against von Simson's objections) when she was named to head the Diebold Research Program. Seligman had worked at IBM. They left Diebold in 1970 to start their own company, bouncing business ideas off a group of friends "who'd become legendary in the information technology field," he writes in the book's introduction.

Those five friends were at Equitable Life, Johnson & Johnson, Southern Railway, Inland Steel and Sanders Associates, and "they judged the ideas we proposed uniformly terrible," von Simson writes, so in 1973 "enough was enough" and that group suggested that von Simson and Seligman conduct research funded by their companies. The result was The Research Board, whose membership was restricted to the top IT executives of large companies, excluding IT vendors. Members voted on what research should be done and had to commit to read the reports and attend meetings to discuss the research. Anyone who missed more than two meetings was booted out.

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