Hewlett-Packard is a Silicon valley legend. No, it invented the legend, or at least the stereotype of two guys founding a technology company in their garage, which is what Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard actually did in 1939 in Palo Alto, CA. It was a very successful company through the 1980s focusing primarily on scientific equipment, which made it turn down employee Steve Wozniak's original design for the Apple I, and then branching out to desktop devices like calculators, computers, and printers (but all arising from its focus on scientific uses).
It all started going south in the 1990s, and then north, east, west, and any whichever way as a generation of business management experts replaced the gizmo-loving geeks in leading the company's divisions. HP started chasing consumers by buying a few personal computer companies, and by the end of the decade wrapped up all of its non-computer assets -- the stuff it had been doing successfully for half a century -- into a bundle and sold it off as Agilent. It recruited a sales exec named Carly Fiorina who led HP into a merger with Compaq and proceeded to go nuts marketing personal computers. Its advertising was celebrated but its computers were duds.
After Fiorina was fired in 2005, HP bought EDS, then 3Com and, in 2010, Palm, Inc., which gave it access to Palm's webOS. In July of this year, HP launched an iPad knock-off called TouchPad and then, just last week (or six weeks later), announced not only that it was terminating the product but that it also hopes to wrap-up and sell-off the PC division it created in the late 1990s. You see, it also announced the $10 billion purchase of a software company called Autonomy, and now plans to evolve into a high-margin consulting services business in the cloud, or whatever. The money today isn't in making things but talking about them.
What a silly and sad story, don't you think? There's a worthy discussion here about the dangers and effects of managers who're expert in managing, not the substance of the business they're supposedly leading. You can just imagine Bill and Dave scratching their heads in some heavenly garage: HP has been treated like a word, or shell, that could be applied to just about any product or service, and then qualified with just about any claim in its branding. Too bad the experts in charge of those things didn't know how wrong they were, and shame on all the vendors and business school numbskulls who encouraged them along in their pointless wandering.
But, like I said, that's another conversation.
If HP weren't committed to becoming just another services consulting business, what would you tell it to do? Here are three thought-starters:
- OK, consult, but with a unique POV -- Management consulting risks getting pretty generic pretty fast, and its primary weakness is that companies need less best practices and principles mumbo jumbo, and more insights into the specifics of their reality that are actionable (see HP's sorry recent history above). Perhaps HP's angle could draw on its heritage in science, as it built its original reputation on assessing diagnostic needs and building the hardware to meet them. I'm not talking a branding tagline but creating a consulting offering that recruits scientists, theorists, and other types different from the standard folks they normally get from b-schools or other consulting firms, and coming up with ongoing ways to apply scientific concepts and tools to business operations. Less management science and more science.
- Own Makers technology -- This is a flier idea that also builds on HP's unique heritage, which is more like Allied Radio/RadioShack than Accenture or IBM. The DIY movement is booming and is likely to keep getting bigger, whether for technical, economic, cultural, or generational reasons. Couldn't HP become the supplier of tools, thinking, and support for people who want to build, modify, and share gizmos? Smartphones and computers that are supposed to be opened up and tinkered with, or global how-to social communities on customizing all the devices that aren’t.
- Isn't there a printer business left? -- I refuse to believe that there's no money in making machines anymore (just consider Apple), but the printer business could seem cheaper or more generic (or the ink cartridges more of a rip off). How is it that somebody hasn't invented a truly new, great solution, or solutions that worked in a variety of situations (those thermal printouts from handheld registers stink, for instance)? Why couldn't that be HP?
Rereading what I just wrote make me sad again, as I know there's no possible way that HP will do anything other than what it has announced. Some big contracts will be written, and executives and bankers will be enriched as more deals are transacted. I think the company could use lots less schmarty-pants management decisions, and maybe a little more one-car garage thinking.
What do you think?
(Image credit: where it all began)