The Fog of Familiarity

I’m enrolled in the MBA program at Oklahoma Christian University. (It’s about time, huh?) I’m also serving there as Entrepreneur in Residence. I’m having a blast.

For one of my classes this term, we had a team project and presentation where we had to analyze a company in the Fortune 100. My team chose AT&T. For part of what I presented, I quickly gave a historical overview of the company. While there are lots of twists and turns and details, in general there wasn’t really anything new for me. But for some reason, as I thought about how to organize the history for presentation to make it easy for the audience to get it in a sticky way, I realized something I hadn’t really realized before…

My father’s generation thinks of AT&T as Ma Bell – everything having to do with the telephone, from the device in your kitchen, to the local and long distance networks, to the friendly operator, to the phone book. I remember when we were doing our first Internet startup, Digital Frontiers, back in 1995, one of our early customers was a local publishing company. As we were interacting with their CIO, we asked him who he used for local connectivity to the Internet. This was in the days when many CLECs were popping up to compete with the RBOCs. He answered by saying “AT&T.” So we said, “you mean Southwestern Bell?” To which he said, “yeah, that’s what I said, Bell.” Despite the fact that I know he knew that AT&T had been broken apart about a decade before, in his mind, they were all still parts of the same Ma Bell, even if they were operating as separate companies. (Of course, if he said “AT&T” today, he’d be perfectly and precisely correct, but that’s another story…)

My generation thinks of AT&T as the Long Distance company. Ten cents a minute, if you call after 10pm. Not telephones. Not local. Just long distance.

My audience in my MBA class is roughly my son’s generation. To them, AT&T is a mobile operator. Sure they’re still in local and long distance and they even have AT&T branded telephones, but the ads running during timeouts in the ball game are all about mobile.

What will my grandson (if the Lord blesses me with one) think of AT&T as? A video company? A Mexican company? An IOT company? Time will tell…

When I used to speak frequently to Sprint customers visiting the headquarters in Kansas City, I would be asked to give the corporate overview. I would usually start by saying that part of my job was to cut through the “fog of familiarity.” When we’ve been doing business for a long time with a company, we tend to think of them as the company they were when we first encountered them. Sometimes it’s healthy to step back and get a new perspective on the companies you think you know.

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