Many years ago, Craig Burton told me the story of a religion whose monks think deeply on the question of a giant mythical snake that circles the world. The question is: How long will it take the tail to know if the head dies?
"The snake," he said, "is IBM. And the head has been dead for years. But nobody seems to notice yet."
Now only the dead don't notice what happened to IBM. After hemorrhaging record quantities of red ink and jobs, the company finally cut off its old head and, after a long search, replaced it with a new one from a biscuit company.
There are lessons here, but not just for Louis Gerstner, who remarkably seems to have re-animated IBM to some degree. They are for Bill Gates and Andy Grove, whose companies now co-own the PC marketplace that IBM created -- and for anybody else who still thinks the computer business is a monopoly game.
The first lesson is that growth has limits. "Trees do not grow to the sky," my wife says. She learned this through many successful years in the fashion business, where the forest floor is well-fertilized by the remains of fallen giants.
I suspect Bill Gates understands this principle, despite Microsoft's run-ins with the Justice Department and various hostile competitors. Because Bill and his company are highly involved with their users. They participate in their markets at every level. They talk and they listen, with anybody, at any level.
I don't get the same impression from Andy Grove and Intel. I have seen little if any evidence that Intel intends to play any game other than monopoly. And why not? They've been winning at it for some time. [For a case history, see A Tale of Two Companies.]
The problem with monopoly is that you win when everybody else loses. Up until 1992, the PC business grew so well that just about everybody kept winning. Then Compaq started a price war and the vendor community turned into Yugoslavia. One PC component marketer at the time told me that the cost of producing a standard PC chip set -- outside the X86 -- was now less than ten dollars. And Intel still gets what it pleases for a Pentium, or even a 486.
There is nothing wrong with maximizing profits, of course. And it's wonderful to be the sole source of the one necessary component in a product made by hundreds of companies and sold to millions of customers for up to several thousand dollars apiece. It makes you a lot of money, but it doesn't make you God.
Monopolies succeed by limiting choices for customers and competitors alike. Intel may have every right to control customer choices; but customers don't like it, and therefore it isn't good for the marketplace. And ultimately, it won't be good for Intel.
Choices make markets. It is the boundless profusion of choices that makes the PC marketplace so vital and exciting -- not the "Intel Inside" most of its boxes. Spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) was a good strategy in an era when "nobody got fired for buying IBM." Today it looks mean and antique.
According to anthropologist Riane Eisler, domination and control worked from about 18,000 B.C. until about 1990. This was the "dominator era" in which spoils went to victors. If Tribe A vanquished Tribe B, it was just too bad for Tribe B. This era ended with the failure of win/lose ethics, most dramatically demonstrated by the ultimate impotence of the arms race, at the end of which the winners found themselves responsible -- as partners -- for the losers.
Domination doesn't work any more, for tribes, countries or companies. The world is too interdependent, too well-connected. Now you can get your enemy on the phone and do business with him. You can both win. This new economy works on what Eisler calls the "partnership model." Countries are spoken of as "trading partners" rather than "trading enemies," because the latter is oxymoronic.
Win/win ethics and "partnering" are not wide-eyed New Age concepts. They are the new laws of the new jungle. The powers in this jungle are not only corporate, either. They are personal. Today, more people have more personal power than ever; not just because they can compute, but because they can communicate, either on their own, or as members of groups.
In "The Coming of a Post-Industrial Society," published in 1973, Daniel Bell predicted the end of the Industrial Age, and the start of a new age in which "reality is primarily the social world." He described this world as a "web of consciousness" enabled by technology.
That web is already here, as we see only too well.
Imagine what will happen when the TV becomes a host for conscious activity, rather than "chewing gum for the eyes," as Fred Allen called it. TV networks, department stores, music publishers and video rental chains will all need to adapt. But into what?
If monopoly was the game we played to win in the Industrial age, polyopoly is the game we'll win by playing in the Information Age. Why? Because modern conditions are much more hostile to monopoly and hospitable to polyopoly.
Monopoly was a way of life long before it was a board game. The Industrial Age began around 1750, and quicly created an economy that rewarded domination and control. Victors got the spoils -- mostly because they owned Boardwalk and Park Place, and, eventualy, everything else they could grab.
Polyopoly is also a way of life. What makes it a game everybody can win is the nature of Information, and the revolution that started with PCs. That revolution will become full-blown when web access becomes ubiquitous, which should happen any minute now.
Whatever else happens, don't bet on Monopoly winners to succeed in the polyopoly game. Or even to understand it.
Where monopoly winners built pyramids of power with authority concentrated at the top, polyopoly winners builds webworks of power that rewards everybody who plays. [For more about how this works, go to Bernie DeKoven's site and see what he says about "ME/WE."]
Success at polyopoly comes from partipation rather than domination, and rewards those who empower participants, rather than those who control them. "The goal," Craig Burton puts it, "is not win/win, but play/play."
Polyopolies will thrive by maximizing the possibilities of connected human beings -- both within their companies and within their markets. They will provide choices rather than limitations, and services rather than controls. Knowing they can't do everything for everybody, they will work in partnership with other companies, and with their own customers.
A good model for large business adaptation is Hewlett-Packard, whose two octogenarian founders returned to preside over the company's successful decentralization into independent entities. How did they do it? By all reports, they put their ears to the ground and listened -- to customers, to employees... even to opponents such as Sun and IBM.
Perhaps the first rule of polyopoly is to remember that in business, as in nature, the ground is the limit. Not the sky.