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The Tipping Point

July 1, 2003
In his popular paperback, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explores the theory that we can learn from infectious ideas that change the world and apply

In his popular paperback, “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell explores the theory that we can learn from infectious ideas that change the world and apply those lessons not only in society or our personal lives, but in the business world, to introduce new products to customers, motivate co-workers to accept new ideas and countless other applications.

The term “tipping point” comes from the science world in the field of epidemiology. It describes the moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It's the boiling point, or the moment on a graph where the line shoots straight up.

In an interview about the book, Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker magazine and former science writer and New York bureau chief for The Washington Post, said, “When I heard that phrase for the first time I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what if everything had a ‘tipping point’? Wouldn't it be cool to try and look for tipping points in business, or in social policy, or in advertising or in any number of other nonmedical areas?

“Ideas can be contagious in exactly the same way that a virus is. I am convinced that ideas and behaviors and new products move through a population very much like a disease does.”

In an interview for this month's cover story, Mike Rioux, president of IDEA, said several factors exist in the electrical wholesaling industry that could act as tipping points to spark widespread adoption of the Industry Data Warehouse (IDW) as the standard for storage of all electronic pricing and product data in this industry.

That's actually a pretty mind-blowing concept for the electrical wholesaling industry, particularly when one thinks of some of the early false starts and failed efforts we have seen drag the industry — kicking and screaming at times — to real-world, no B.S. e-business. The examples are still fresh in our minds: the AnswerPro CD-ROM catalog…the great debates over how universal product codes (UPCs) would turn all electrical products into commodities…the slow acceptance rate of bar coding amongst electrical distributors…and the turf wars over different flavors of EDI and vendor-managed inventory (VMI).

In my 20 years with Electrical Wholesaling magazine, we have devoted a lot of ink and paper in our coverage of these controversial issues. Most recently, we took a look at pricing services in the electrical industry in the May issue's cover story, “The Perils of Pricing” (p. 20). Pricing is obviously a key element of the IDW, and that article offered valuable insight into the different philosophies that IDEA and the industry's other pricing services have on how pricing data should be handled.

Yet, despite the electrical industry's acceptance — and avoidance — of these issues, it stands on the threshold of a radically different way of doing business through the IDW and IDX2.

Sure, the IDW has its detractors, as does any new idea. But the fact remains that it was built with the brains, brawn and bullying of some of the brightest people the electrical wholesaling industry has seen in the past 20 years. They saw how an IDW could work for the greater good for the electrical industry as a whole, as well as the inherent competitive advantages of being wired into an electronic network where everyone — manufacturers, electrical distributors, independent manufacturers' reps, contractors and other end users — speaks the same digital language.

In the cover story on page 14, Mike Rioux offers a realistic update of IDEA's progress to-date, an assessment of its toughest challenges, an intriguing glimpse of its potential, and the possibility that the business model IDEA is using in the electrical business could be used in many other distribution-based industries. Now that's a tipping point worth pondering.