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Crossing the Cultural Divide - Apple meets Cingular/AT&T

by Linda Ford, PhD

Hip and edgy Apple has decided to dance with Cingular (as in, stodgy old AT&T). The revolutionary meets the regulated monopoly. Will this be like "Bambi meets Godzilla?" Not likely, but there are some significant challenges in the alliance.

If you want a visual image of the difference, check out the story on Inside Bay Area ( In the accompanying photo, you can just feel the difference between Jobs and Sigman (Cingular CEO).

Here are a few elements of culture that could trouble this alliance.

Decision making. Apple has demonstrated its willingness to move quickly to be the market leader, sometimes at the cost of putting the wrong product out in the market. (Anyone remember the Apple II?) AT&T (Cingular's parent) is more known for the slow, lumbering moves appropriate to a giant.

Customer care. Early customers may very well get caught in the middle as the Cingular service reps declare the problem to be an iPhone technical issue while Apple declares it a Cingular phone service issue. Which set of policies and systems will prevail as the inevitable early glitches occur? Will the customers survive the battle?

Innovation. AT&T's enthusiasm for investments in technology may not keep pace with Apple's. Steve Jobs built Apple on his willingness to invest in leading edge (and sometimes bleeding edge) technology. With product life cycles measured in months in the cell phone industry, that mismatch could spell trouble for the collaboration.

Brand identity. Apple rarely co-brands its products. Cingular is returning to the AT&T brand. What does all of this mean to the iPhone? (To say nothing of the Cisco lawsuit over the iPhone name!) Trouble ahead on this front for sure. How will these two very different cultures tackle this tricky tangle?

Communication. I know - this is a communication device. But can the executives who have to hold the deal together make it work? The possibilities for miscommunication and misunderstood expectations are boundless. All of the things that are left unsaid in the course of normal business communication are possible sources for misunderstanding. Executives on each side of the deal will make their own assumptions about what was and wasn't said, likely without even realizing they are making assumptions.

This whole affair calls to mind cartoons from the 1950s showing a flustered telephone switchboard operator with wires all tangled and crossed. Can't you just picture the iPhone caught in that tangle of wires? However, all of that said, this is an exciting step in the media and communications world and it could be the start of some interesting developments.

Take charge of your organization - free resources at . Dr. Linda Ford helps leaders create organizations that achieve superior performance. She has consulted to companies ranging from small start-ups to Fortune 100 companies as well as non-profit organizations To learn more about Dr. Ford, visit . Linda Ford, PhD may be contacted at or