“Don’t ask me. I’m a ‘Yes’ man.” — IBM commercial

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Steve Case’s decision to step down as chairman of the online and entertainment giant AOL Time Warner is a symbol of what’s going wrong in corporate America today.

Out with the visionaries, in with the yes men/women.

There should be a new job title created: CYF.

Chief Yes Flunky.

Out with the CEOs who dare think about what the next “big thing” might be, in with the CFOs who can count decimals to 00.000000001.

Out with those who dare to win, in with the introverts who can’t think beyond the next quarter’s earnings report.

My favorite commercials these days are those from IBM where the corporate dunderheads gather around a table and quiz entrepreneurs about proposed business solutions.

The magic lamp.

The magic beans — which the head guy eats before asking if he should. “I wouldn’t,” the inventor asks.

The magic binoculars.

The best line has to be when one of the CEO’s right-hand guys (sitting at his left hand) dares to ask another: “What do you think?”

“Don’t ask me,” replies the quivering pile of mush. “I’m a ‘Yes” man.”

IBM reminds viewers — and any executive who dares to keep watching, not cower under the table as he/she blushes in recognition of the fact that he/she is captured perfectly by the corporate scene of incompetence — that there are no magic solutions.

Companies are going to get themselves out of this current economic mess by focusing on basics and integrating innovative technology to improve products, productivity, price and customer satisfaction. They are not going to cut themselves to prosperity.

Innovation has to be part of the solution in a globally competitive world.

Where will AOL Time Warner go without Case and many other executives who have departed as the giant’s shares have plummeted?

Where would we be today without the dreamers and visionaries who built the Internet – or tackled the human genome?

Here’s my favorite passage from today’s Wall Street Journal coverage of the Case resignation:

“One person close to the company said that Mr. Case’s position had become untenable because of the hostility from senior executives. People from the former Time Warner division complained for months that Mr. Case made little contribution to the company because he focused on shaky theories about convergence of technology and entertainment.”

Well, excuse me, but isn’t convergence taking place?

Don’t we all like the nifty new features available through digital cable?

AOL just happens to be the largest online service in the world.

The Nero scenario?

No one yet has answered the convergence puzzle, but anyone who thinks that Hollywood, cable, online, broadcast media and such aren’t morphing into one giant service hasn’t been reading or watching newspapers for a decade.

Look at what’s happening to the recording industry? It’s in meltdown because they moguls can’t figure out a way to capitalize — or control — online downloads as well as the fact that The Rolling Stones, The Who, Santana and Rod Stewart have more drawing power than today’s teenybopper burnouts.

The AOL Time Warner executive suite and board in recent months has become focused on one issue” “Let’s get Case.”

Here’s a passage from The New York Times:

“Franklin D. Raines, the chief executive of Fannie Mae, a director of AOL Time Warner and an AOL director before the merger, said last night that he agreed that Mr. Case’s tenure would have become an increasing distraction in the months leading up to the election of directors at the annual meeting.

‘All anybody would be talking about is, how many votes will Case get?’ he said.”

Sort of sounds like Nero, Rome and the fiddle scenario, doesn’t it?

A dream realized

I met Steve Case way back in 1992 at a conference on emerging technologies. Case was touting something called “America Online.” He had a dream, and he delivered it.

He had another dream and tried to build AOL and Time Warner into something better. But the plunging stock market and deflated Internet balloon has driven the value of the merged operations to $66 billion from $156 billion when the deal was announced two years ago.

“Off with the king’s head,” cried enough stockholders — enough to get Case’s scalp along with many others of those who did the deal. They question AOL accounting now — and much more.

Has management made mistakes? No doubt. But don’t forget his achievements.

“It’s a disheartening message, and one that obscures Case’s masterwork: building America Online into the colossus it is today,” writes George Mannes in The Street. “Sure, it’s flawed, and sure, it’s stumbling financial performance got AOL Time Warner into the mess it is today. But AOL’s growth into the world’s largest online service is an epic achievement nonetheless.”

Case told The Times that he is a fighter and he doesn’t want to walk away. But he thinks the decision is best for the company.

We’ll see. If AOL turns to “Yes” guys and gals, I doubt they will be able to deliver answers – or a better stock price.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.