True story. The scene: Northworst Airlines. Time: 10.5 minutes before flight time. Players: yours truly and a gate agent. “You needed to be here earlier. We’ve reassigned your seat,” said the agent.

“But your brochure says if I’m here 10 minutes before flight time you guarantee a seat,” I protest.

“It’s 10 minutes before flight time right now,” he responds, pointing to his watch.

“So how could you have reassigned my seat?” I ask. “I got here three minutes ago and waited in your line, and still started talking to you before the deadline.”

“You needed to get here earlier.”

When I die, I hope to thank the good lord for making my life a continuous psychedelic experience. Until then, let’s continue our discussion about real customers, internal customers, and the difference.

As you may recall, last week I proposed that “internal customer” is a metaphor that’s gotten out of hand. It’s useful for process design, because that discipline requires an understanding of the inputs and outputs of a system. As a guide to behavior, though, it’s pretty questionable, as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of “I’m your customer so you have to do what I ask you to,” can verify. (“Yeah, buddy. I have 2,500 customers and I have to obey each one of you, plus my boss,” is the usual, subvocal response.)

I learned the right attitude about all of this one week after joining Perot Systems (I generally avoid mentioning my employer in this column, but credit where credit is due). Jeff Smith, who takes care of our “World Area Network” and I were discussing how to link Minneapolis into the company WAN, and I had proposed an alternative Jeff found suboptimal. “Bob, I’m here to help you succeed,” he said before patiently reiterating his preference for using the same kind of frame relay link everyone else uses.

Bingo! If I were Jeff’s customer, he’d have given me what I asked for. That’s not his job. His job is to help me succeed, and that’s an entirely different spool of cable.

The traditional role of Information Systems has been to help the rest of the company succeed. That’s a wonderful role to have. We get involved in everything the company does with an eye to helping the company do it better. That’s a whole lot more satisfying than responding to orders from internal customers, don’t you think?

The process of resolving this issue leads to another useful insight. We humans have an instinctive urge to categorize, and that, in turn, leads us to apply labels to everything we see, and when we’re categorizing the unfamiliar, we try to draw on similarities with the familiar. So physicists had a centuries-long debate over whether to categorize light as a wave or a particle, leading to the famous “wave/particle paradox.”

No paradox at all, explained Albert Einstein. Light is its own kind of stuff. It has some properties similar to those of water waves, others similar to those of pellets. The “paradox” just shows our own intellectual deficiency coming into play.

Physicists understand light – actually, all electromagnetic radiation – by developing descriptions, in the form of mathematical equations, of its behavior. They use those descriptions to predict how electromagnetic radiation will behave in whatever new circumstance comes to mind, which in turn lets engineers design new and better optical devices, like the new Digital Video Disks (DVDs) which many predict will supplant the older, still-pretty-clever CDs and CD-ROMs we’ve been using for the last several years.

And that’s our lesson for today, class: worry less about attaching labels to classes of people, and more about describing the behavior you do see and prescribing the behavior you want to see.