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Volume 19, Number 41 -- November 15, 2010

As I See It: The Importance of Being Important

Published: November 15, 2010

by Victor Rozek

I'm at The Bellagio with my wife, watching people working hard at having fun. We are seated in a lounge overlooking a monument to hubris. Actually, it's just one of many monuments to foolery in the city devoted to all things surreal: Las Vegas. In an area where moisture evaporates faster than a gambler's cash, The Bellagio boasts an eight-acre pond with 1.5 million gallons of precious water. Every 15 minutes, its computerized fountains spit columns of agua to the dulcet strains of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, (and less memorable music). It's impressive the first time you see it. Not so much an hour later after you've seen it three more times.

Tired of fountain spray, we walk down the road to the Mandalay Bay where IBM is holding a little get together for several thousand of its closest friends. It's the Business Analytics Forum where, IBM promises, "you can see the future of decision making." Sounds serious.

With all the distractions, why IBM chose to rollout "the future" in Vegas, is not clear. It's sort of like holding religious instruction at Hooters. Perhaps that's why everyone's comings and goings are tracked by an RFID chip embedded in their forum badge. Management probably wants to know if their minions are actually attending sessions or donking-off at the Bellagio. Of course, all they can really know is if the badge attended.

But I didn't come to Vegas specifically for the Analytics Forum; that was a bonus. I came to help my father-in-law paint his new winter home in Sun City, a retirement community about a half-hour northwest of the strip. But here I am, surrounded by IT professionals, strangers to the desert sun, with pale faces and soft bodies, the consequence of spending too many years indoors hunched over a keyboard.

I suck in my stomach, straighten my shoulders, and join the registration line where I am greeted by a formal-looking woman in casual business attire. I explain that although I'm not a paid participant, I'm from the media and I'd like a packet. She looks dubious. But I give her my best boyish grin, the one that can make a metronome skip a beat, and she hands over the goods. My wife, however, scoffs at the power of my boyish grin. She says the woman was tired, the line was long, and she just didn't want to argue with me. But I could swear it was the grin.

I resolve to test the grin in Sun City, where the average age is 70, almost everyone is retired, and hardly anyone is grinning. In contrast to the frenzied energy on the strip, there, as Keats said, all is "silence and slow time." The streets are empty, and more rabbits than golfers play on the fairways. Unlike the opulent swagger of the strip, bristling with orchestrated possibility, nothing much appears to be happening in Sun City.

Not so at the Mandalay. At the forum, all is gravitas tempered with engineered fun. Knowledge and expertise, shared. Camaraderie and partnership, established. Winners one and all, building that elusive smarter planet.

The future of decision making, it turns out, is purchasable in the form of IBM Cognos 10 and SPSS. Predictive Analytics, a concept brimming with implied importance, is the latest rage. It offers what-if scenario modeling, enterprise planning, risk management, financial performance management, and business intelligence. No longer, says Deepak Advani, vice president of predictive analytics, will organizations rely on "misguided intuition" to make crucial decisions. (I wouldn't suggest Advani tell my wife her intuition is misguided, at least not without full pads and helmet.) Nonetheless, Advani insists that data, data, data, and the power of software to make sense of it, will allow organizations to anticipate and shape business outcomes.

Everyone attending the IBM forum is a current or potential customer, vendor, or business partner and is therefore valued and treated as being important. Attendees bask in the purchasing power of their respective companies, which pay for their overpriced rooms and pricey meals. When you're treated with deference, it's tempting to believe that the fawning is directed at you as a person, not merely as a representative of a company with a large IT budget. Confidence and entitlement pervade. Everyone is playing with house money.

The mood is different up the road. While forum participants gather in Ballroom H for the keynote address, several hundred retirees are gathering at a local casino that caters to the residents of Sun City. It's smaller and far less opulent than the strip casinos, but once a week it puts on a free show for the locals. The show consists of second- and third-tier acts, performers who no longer--or never will--work on the strip. Having seen an impressive production of Lion King at the Mandalay several days prior, we now watch a 60-something MC run on stage with exaggerated ebullience trying to resuscitate the crowd. He is wearing brown shoes and a black tuxedo. The featured singer is an overweight woman testing the limits of a sequined dress. She wears a younger woman's heels and is having obvious difficulty staying upright. Among the acts are a ventriloquist with a juggling bunny, and a woman with a shrill alto voice who sings with gusto but often off key.

They do their best, but as the show painfully progresses, I have the thought that the show is just a microcosm of a larger reality: Retirees are not important enough to be treated with the deference accorded their younger counterparts at the Mandalay. Retirement, it seemed to me, had stripped them of importance. They were no longer players, no longer making purchasing decisions on behalf of corporations, no longer powerful by virtue of title or position. Beyond providing profits for the medical establishment and the ubiquitous assisted living facilities eager to assist retirees in parting with their life savings, retirees had little value.

One moment their work, their team, their company was important. They were important. They had identity and purpose. The next moment they joined a vast dead sea of second-tier people playing out the string, as if their value had retired right along with them.

Nor would they ascend to the status of wise elders. No one would travel great distances to consult them; no one was eager to learn from their experience. Wisdom is slow stuff. It can't be tweeted. Through the lens of Predictive Analytics, the future of those who retire would appear to be brief and bleak. But not my father-in-law's. He plans to buy a golf cart and chase those rabbits around the fairways. He has the apparent rare ability to source his own meaning and aliveness.

Importance, of course, is subjective. Some search for it in the strip's cartoonish displays of wealth, or in power, or in God, or in the love of another, or even in the ability to analytically predict the future. But spending time in a retirement community taught me this: True importance can neither be earned nor bestowed. It's what's left when all the other things cease being important.

We were painting a big, empty house and I had brought bedding for myself and my wife, but her father had flown in and at 74, sleeping on the floor didn't sound inviting. But we heard that Sun City had extra sleeping pads that residents could borrow. So I drove up the hill to borrow them. Two elderly women were seated behind a small counter in a room full of pads and cots, cribs and car seats. I explained our situation and asked for some pads. "Can I see your resident card?" one of them asked. "No," I said, "I'm not a resident. It's for my father-in-law," and I gave them my best boyish grin.

Their advanced years and deteriorating eyesight probably prevented them from experiencing the grin at full wattage. I held it as long as I could without sacrificing sincerity, and when they showed no sign of being swayed, I left and drove back down to the empty house to get the ID.


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