Corporate loyalties and the temporal disconnect

Objectivity doesn't mean having no opinion, it means being willing the change that opinion as the facts may warrant.

As a consultant I'm forever being asked to pretend to a form of objectivity that simply doesn't exist in the real world. Here's the truth: the only people who can approach a new problem without preconceptions are people who have no experience with the problem, the people, and the applicable technologies.

The whole bias issue generally represents a fundamental mis-understanding of the problem evaluation process: open bias is often a positive thing, and people claiming to have no initial bias are either incompetent, dishonest, or both. Objectivity doesn't mean having no opinion, it means being willing the change that opinion as the facts may warrant.

On the personal level I see Wintel as basically a social disease -a mental affliction that blinds its victims to the strengths of alternative technologies and the impact their addiction has on their own lives and businesses - but this doesn't stop me from sometimes using it and occasionally even recommending it. Admittedly that's been relatively rare -and I'm not just talking about clients who own boats- but sometimes circumstances require it: because sometimes the software is right or going along is the only way for the client to get along and, either way, I've never been loath to say so.

What I see most often in others, however, is much more insidious than open bias without an open mind: it's invisible bias resulting from a hidden temporal disconnect.

In its first form, the consultant proclaims objectivity based on having experience on both sides of a technology argument - say Windows versus Unix. On close review, however, it turns out that the experience on one side of this was weak to begin with and terribly out dated today.

It's not unusual, for example, to meet people "objectively" comparing today's Wintel products and pricing to their memories of bruising late eighties encounters with AIX, HP-UX 9.0, or DG-UX. Indeed I had a startling conversation sometime last year with an internet luminary whose name you would immediately recognise in which his loud assertions to the effect that Linux is better than Solaris turned out to be based entirely on a few weeks spent with SunOS 4.1.X years before Solaris came into existence.

In its second form this shows up as deeply rooted loyalty to a former employer - ex KPMG partners turned Finance directors tend to hire KPMG auditors, and people who started their professional careers in IBM shops tend to sell out their companies to IBM.

What's going on there is the same thing that drives otherwise sane Americans or Canadians to claim that things were better in the old country - wherever that was for them. It's pretty much never true: what they're responding to is their memories of youth: of the feelings that went with youthful energy, first jobs, first loves, the excitement of self-discovery, and the deepening personal relationships that go with evolving maturity.

Fundamentally what's going with both kinds of biases is a temporal disconnect, they're comparing memories to reality as if the circumstances during which those memories were created had remained unchanged ever since. Well, the memories haven't changed, but circumstances have - and basing actions on comparisons in which one side is frozen in time is therefore intellectually dishonest.

So, bottom line? when your finance director remembers that Unix costs half a million bucks for a small machine, or wants to hire a former employer, think temporal disconnect - and focus your efforts on getting the person to recognise that gap before attacking on the facts.