Maslow’s hammer


I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Abraham Maslow, Psychology of Science: a Reconnaissance

Although he’s most famous for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow also noted that people with incomplete knowledge or understanding tend to propose the same type of solution to every problem that they encounter. This phenomenon isn’t widely known as “Maslow’s hammer,” although there’s probably a good reason to use that term for it. Maslow may not have been the first person to notice it, but he was probably the first to describe it in a way that’s easy to understand and explain. I see Maslow’s hammer fairly often in the field of information security, but that’s probably just because that’s an area I know something about. It probably happens in other industries too, but I don’t know enough about those industries to see it.

There are lots of people out there that understand a little about PKI, for example. Some of them learned it when PKI was trendy and fashionable during the dot-com boom. Others learn a little about it when they get their MCSE certification. In most cases, they really don’t use it much because very few applications support it. So even if they’ve set up a PKI in their organization, they probably haven’t done much with it. But because they know a little bit about PKI, that becomes the hammer that Maslow’s hammer describes, and they often treat every encryption project that comes along as one that can be solved by PKI. Some can, but even more can’t.

Voltage’s sales managers often meet people who have the PKI hammer in their toolbox, and have to convince them that there’s a better alternative. That can be tricky, but the benefits of using identity-based encryption are fairly significant. In most cases, it turns out to be worth the time and effort that it takes customers to learn about how IBE can be a good alternative to PKI.

One day, someone will probably invent a technology that’s better that IBE in some way. IBE already has lots of users – roughly 10 million users at several hundred businesses. So when the better technology comes along, the company that’s selling it will probably have to overcome the resistance of customers who will be viewing IBE as the hammer with which to solve all of their encryption problems. But with any luck, Voltage will invent that next step.

  • Og

    Thanks for getting the quote correct! It came from Maslow’s reading of Polanyi’s “Personal Knowledge.” Proprioception and all that, for the hopeless propeller heads out there.


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