When dot-comers and their brethren get together, they speak of one thing constantly: recruiting the best people from other dot-coms or from old-line companies. To run a successful new tech company you need to staff it with the best people, not only in tech but in sales and marketing.

You get these people by selling your firm to them. The thing that sells it best is your currency. If you have no currency -- meaning that your stock is dead or dying -- you can't recruit and you can't keep the poachers at bay. We all like to play for winning teams. We all like to make money. In corporate America a winning team is a winning stock and a winning stock creates a winning team. It's a virtuous circle.

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That's why the

Lucent

(LU)

debate is so important. Lucent had a great currency: its highflying stock. It needed that currency to be able to keep up with

Nortel

(NT)

and

Cisco

(CSCO) - Get Report

, which have currencies that the

Bundesbank

, long the keeper of a strong mark, would only envy. Lucent's strong currency allowed it to purchase

Ascend

, which was a fabulous company doing lots of innovations for the Net. In fact, Ascend was ahead -- acknowledged quietly by even the folk at Cisco -- in some areas of technology that were ultra-important to high-end Web development. But now Lucent's currency can't keep the Ascend people. They have tasted the magic of a rising stock, which makes them richer by the day, and now they have lost that taste. They are easy to poach.

It gets worse once you get down the spiral. If you are Lucent, your major customers were the big old behemoth telcos, the same ones that have let everyone eat their lunch for years. And they will continue to do so, despite what you hear, because they are run by men in their 50s who are more worried about state regulators and legacies than winning. They know it. I know it.

But the customers of tomorrow are

Qwest

(QWST)

and

Exodus

(EXDS)

and

Digital Island

(ISLD)

. These people don't want to be shmoozed by salespeople; they want the fastest and best product. I don't know if Lucent can get or maintain that kind of salesperson, one who understands this new mindset.

Yesterday when I said that Lucent could become a

Digital Equipment

or an

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

, I left out one major fundamental shift that might make the comparison more odious than I originally thought. When IBM and Digital Equipment stumbled, there were no great alternatives to go to. You could go to

Data Gen

, or maybe

Compaq

(CPQ)

or

Tandem

.

These days you can go to a start-up and make a potential fortune. Or go to an Exodus and ride a great currency. The competition for great minds is keener than at any other time. And the pay is dazzling.

That's something that requires Lucent to make some very hard choices in order to get back into the game. But it also may mean that Lucent can never get back into the game, because in the new corporate world you don't get three strikes.

The question facing Lucent right now is, do you get only one?

James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At time of publication, his fund was long Cisco, Compaq, Exodus, IBM and Nortel. His fund often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns, both before and after the columns are published, and the positions that his fund takes may change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to comment on his column at

jjcletters@thestreet.com.