When a company's most recent success is a good Olympic slogan, it's a sad day, but such is the current state of HP. The once mighty force has become a fragmented mess.
There is some good news: HP Software--which in retrospect might be happy it was kept separate from Autonomy--is building out a strong cloud management capability, and the systems business has some impressive products and might be getting an infusion of good karma from the HP/Oracle lawsuit ruling. The printing division has more than a few cool products and innovations up its sleeve, and HP's latest ad campaign had someone holding what looked like a new HP Slate tablet, hopefully targeting the pending Windows 8 launch.
But the problem that bedeviled Apotheker and would have still weighed on him even if he had not been fired last year, remains: There's no cross-company strategy, no way of talking to the market about how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, no synergistic product set that taps into the company's ability to provide a mix of services, hardware, and software that, taken together, provide that value-added positioning that would remake Hewlett-Packard's tarnished brand.
Instead, HP remains the company that Apotheker's predecessor, Mark Hurd, was able to run to the short-term satisfaction of investors and the detriment of anyone--employees, partners, customers--interested in long-term value: A company that in reality is a federation of completely separate entities, rarely working in unison, hopefully not too often at loggerheads, unable to cross-sell, and stuck in a corporate version of the Peter Principle having risen to its level of incompetence and unable to go any further.
Not that HP isn't trying, at least on the branding side. Its new "Make It Matter" spot, shown during the Olympics, is the culmination of a year-long effort that is targeted as much at the outside world of customers and partners as it is at the employees who, for good and bad, are apparently running for the exits in unexpected numbers. In that spot, the message is clear--the power of technology to help people work, achieve their dreams, learn, create, and change the world is HP's birthright, and that's what matters. Mixed into the visuals are the many ways in which the company already makes those aspirations come true, and it shows a cool side of HP that most people have no idea exists. In short, it's a well-done piece worthy of the aspirations of a once-great company.
But the question remains: Is it too late to make those aspirations a reality? Can HP really matter to the market again?
My sense today is that it might be too late, at least for the federated HP that aspires to be like IBM in 2012 but looks more like IBM in 1993, on the ropes and losing relevance and market share. In order for HP to be what it aspires to be would require not just a great pan-HP strategy but the rapid and flawless execution of that strategy, and that's where I'm a little pessimistic.
It's hard to turn around a company whose employee base is so massively demoralized, where the silo mentality is so ingrained that acquired employees continue to use email addresses ending in eds.com and palm.com years after their companies were acquired, and where the third CEO in three years has yet to do more than triage a company that's seriously in danger of succumbing to its wounds.
What Whitman needs to do, in my opinion, is emulate Steve Ballmer: sign on to a strategic vision--the cloud, in Microsoft's case--and then move everyone in the company, many kicking and screaming, toward that vision. Put a slogan in the mix and make everyone in the company use it as a tag line and repeat it until it actually starts to sink in. ("We're all in" became the de rigeur sign-off for Microsoft email messages.) And then tell Wall Street and the likes of Vanity Fair to stuff it, ride out the criticism, and start moving product strategy forward.
And while there are those that think that Ballmer laid an egg with his new approach (and I'm emphatically not one of them), even his detractors will have to admit that Microsoft as a company has a vision and is engaged in it, the employees are excited, and there are some seriously interesting bets on the table that could, and will, IMO, turn Microsoft around: Azure, Windows 8, Kinect, to name a few.
Going the Microsoft route is hardly a guarantee for success, in part because it takes years (Microsoft has been at its new vision for at least five years, and probably needs one more year to really make it solid), and in part because coming up with a truly momentous vision is harder than just about anything else in the technology industry. And it's even harder still when triage continues to be job number one two years after Hurd left.
In the end, vision will be the test of Whitman's tenure, if she makes it past the one-year mark. And my sense is that her vision won't include every one of the business units that make up HP today, mostly because it's hard to envision how to bring together a dying PC industry, an increasingly commoditized printer and server business, a chronically underperforming services business, and a software division that doesn't actually own most of the company's software assets, and forge a great, new strategy that the whole company can march toward.
It's clear HP is trying with its cloud strategy, and there might still be something to do with business analytics that's meaningful, but these are initiatives that would have been visionary if they'd started under Hurd's tenure. Today they look too much like me-too, catch-up strategies.
Fixing all of HP is just too hard. Even if the CEO was named Meg Wonder Woman, I wouldn't bet on her being able to bring so many struggling lines of business together and make them matter. Something will have to go away in order for HP to live on, and I would expect that a year from now HP will have been significantly downsized if, indeed, it's going to continue to matter at all.
Some things are just too big for their own good, and HP today might be just one of those things.