A number of years ago, I read a book called “Built to Last”, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. The book, a classic of the genre, discusses a number of companies that the author feel to be “visionary” in nature. One of those companies is HP. The founders of the company built not just a company, but also a coherent internal culture, commonly called the “HP Way”. This has lead to the company being greatly admired in business circles.
The last few years have been rough on HP’s external image, in large part – I believe – unfairly. The past week has seen the second sudden departure of its CEO in only a few years. Both were due to scandal. While profitability has not been hurt (in fact HP is doing better than ever, with much credit to its recently departed CEO!), the stock has lately been pummeled in the markets.
Some of the commentary that I’ve read describe the most recent tenure as being one of building a solid financial foundation for the company. Which leads me to my point. What HP needs in its new leader is a vision for where the company should be moving technologically. Not just a specific set of goals, but something that is going to put fire in their bellies (and enthral their customers). In short, they need a BHAG – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.
One possibility that comes to mind: HP is one of the largest manufacturers of electronics (both consumer and business) in the world. If they made a decision that in 3 to 5 years time, every single device that they manufactured would contain a wireless mesh device, they could theoretically blanket the entire world with free, decentralized, high speed internet connections. And by implication, free telephony and broadcast media. Yes, there are still big technical issues to address, and wireless mesh networks are still very much the realm of techy enthusiasts (and the US military, and also to some extent Google). But that’s the point of a BHAG. Yes, the telecom industry would scream (including likely some of HP’s board members – hey, I’m just sayin’) as their entire business model evaporated. Oh, and Apple might be in trouble as well – they make money on the telecom contracts for iPhones, not on the hardware. But imagine the sales pitch to consumers – buy our printers, our laptops, our telephones, and never pay for internet, telephone or cable TV ever again. Nice, eh?
Here’s another possibility: HP is already widely known for its environmentally friendly policies, and especially for its experience handling and recycling plastics. Imagine what effect a Fortune 500 company (with $100 billion plus per year in revenue) could have, if it would back a project like WHIM Architecture’s Recycled Island project? WHIM are trying to gather all of the waste plastic floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and turn it into habitable land. I don’t know with any certainty if their economic projections are feasible, but there’s a potential for large profits from this type of venture.
There’s no doubt that there’s any number of highly talented people that can step into the chief executive role at HP. Let’s hope that whomever they chose will bring this kind of vision to the table, and that this remarkable company can quickly move beyond this temporary setback.