Heard at TDWI: “The soft stuff is the important stuff”

In the 32 days since the end of TDWI’s San Diego conference, one phrase has come to my mind repeatedly: “The soft stuff is always the important stuff,” uttered by Wayne Eckerson, director of TDWI Research. He was summing up a panel discussion, but the insight applies so broadly he could have used it for most other panels, too.

Leadership, persuasion, negotiation, generosity and knowledge and other such things all count at least as much as technology. The “soft stuff” is the axle grease, and yet the vehicle usually gets the credit. Bad grease makes any wheel worth a lot less.

Take one subject I wrote about in July, Government 2.0. It’s the idea that Web 2.0-inspired tools and attitudes will engender a new era of collaboration between officials and citizens. Each will benefit, and the public spirit will flower like it never has.

It’s a great idea and perhaps inevitable—despite an organization that promotes it. nGenera’s wizard is the visionary Don Tapscott, who does an admirable job of promotion. But when I probed for more than happy-talk, Tapscott’s little man behind the curtain—the Government 2.0 “program director”—did his feeble best to raise a stink when I didn’t accept his platitudes for my two BI This Week stories. Bad axle grease.

Take another subject: buying a house. My 85-year-old uncle tells about shopping for a house just north of New York City. Twenty years ago, he and his wife bought a house based on one visit in the dark. They trusted the agent. “We usually trusted others, and it usually worked out,” he says. Also, as a pioneering neurochemist and director for many years of a New York state lab, he erred on the side of generosity with those who asked for his help. He found that the goodwill generally comes back. Good axle grease.

If the soft stuff is so important, where does it fit on a balance sheet? Sorry, in the U.S. there’s no clear slot. You train a talented employee to analyze data, and you’re screwed if she leaves—as sure as if your warehouse flooded and several pallets of books got soaked. The books are written off like any asset, but not the valuable new analyst. Read all about it in Denise Caruso’s “The Real Value of Intangibles” in strategy+business magazine.

The “soft stuff is always the important stuff” quote was too good for the one place it would have fit in my story from San Diego. But I’ll find a fitting spot for it soon enough.

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