After Ernest von Simson’s book, The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry, was published three years ago, he watched major shifts occur at the IT companies he had focused on, notably the slide of Hewlett-Packard at the same time that stalwart IBM maintained its industry standing.
The juxtaposition of the two companies got him thinking again about innovation and led him to write an epilogue for a new edition of the book. “What makes for that [innovation] in a large and relatively traditional enterprise? Why is one innovative and why is the other one not?” von Simson said in a recent interview. “That was my initial thinking. I was also interested in filling out what happened with the ‘Star Walkers,’” he added, referring to Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Scott McNealy, Larry Ellison and Bill Gates, who are central to the book’s narrative.
“Once again, we focus our queries on the factors that advance or retard a firm’s ability to change with the technology and ahead of the marketplace,” he wrote in the epilogue. “Those factors are a combination of leadership, business model, R&D, and mergers and acquisitions.”
Von Simson’s career path has given him an insider look at the IT industry as a co-founder in 1970 of The Research Board, along with Naomi Seligman, his wife. The exclusive, IT-focused think tank gave them the opportunity to watch corporate leaders steer their companies through enormous change over nearly 30 years. They sold the company to Gartner in 1999 and went on to found Ostriker von Simson, a consultancy that works with large global enterprises to advise them on choosing and deploying technologies and software. Von Simson, Seligman and Abigail Kramer also are directors of the CIO Strategy Exchange, a joint venture with Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, that offers a forum for emerging startups, enterprise IT heavyweights such as IBM, Oracle, Dell and HP, venture capitalists and CIOs from a range of multinational companies.
From that perch, von Simson continues to see the importance of “steadfastness as the key quality of successful CEOs,” along with the necessity for “a contingent of capable lieutenants strong enough to be heard when either encouraging or declaiming CEO decisions,” he wrote in the epilogue, adding that the strength of those lieutenants is “the surest way to gauge the true caliber of a CEO.” A board of directors that has overall been in place “long enough to inculcate the company’s culture and understand its strategy” is “equally critical.”
The epilogue also notes that “the dark side of steadfastness is stubbornness—the leader fastened to a destructive idea long enough to pull the entire company over a cliff,” which takes the conversation first to the topic of Dell and then to HP. If von Simson had any particular leaders in mind when he penned those words (and surely he must have) he isn’t inclined to a public outing. Asked specifically about Michael Dell and the flagging fortunes of his namesake company, von Simson characterized the CEO as “an enormously capable executive” who faces a daunting rebuilding challenge to contend with a market that is now focused on tablets and smartphones.
“I think it’s a huge waste of everybody’s time when whoever is managing Dell—whether it’s Michael or anyone else—has to be restructuring the company,” von Simson said. At HP, CEO Meg Whitman has before her a very difficult job in trying to move the company forward while also dealing with the fallout from the disastrous acquisition of Autonomy, which is accused of accounting improprieties that led HP to take an $8.8 billion write-down last year. That write-down tanked HP’s share price and led to serious concerns about the future of the company.
“They’ve got an activist shareholder right now as chairman,” von Simon said of Ralph Whitworth, who was named interim chairman on April 4. “I think that could be a lead indicator [for where the company is headed]. I think Meg is trying to maintain the PC business and the printers to some extent as cash cows to move the rest forward. I don’t know how plausible that is. I can’t tell you how significant a 24 percent drop in PC shipments is to a company that’s troubled in the first place,” referring to first-quarter numbers from market researcher IDC.
HP, he said, has been mismanaged for the last 15 years, but if anyone has a shot at righting the sinking ship it has become it would be Whitman. “She’s very smart, very capable,” he said. “Everybody asks, ‘can Meg do it?’ I hope so—because HP is an American icon. But if she doesn’t succeed, it’s not her fault. It’s just all this crap going on that has been going on for so long.”
He also questions Apple’s continued resistance to the enterprise market, entry into which he wrote in the epilogue “is blocked by a now-pervasive cultural aversion cemented by Steve Jobs.” That aversion was on display the last time he and Seligman saw Jobs, running into him on the Hawaiian island of Lanai in April 2011. When Jobs said to them during that chance encounter that “some day corporations will buy our products,” and Seligman responded that “they already are, and in quantity,” Jobs insisted that Apple would “never sell to enterprise CIOs. Anything we do there will be purely opportunistic.”
That exchange prompted von Simson to wonder in the epilogue whether Apple will ever “escape its roots and innovate into a new distribution channel.”
Besides updating the trajectories and IT leaders he focused on in the book, von Simson wanted to write the epilogue as a way to note how rapidly IT has changed in just a few years, with the advent of tablets and smartphones. He is tracking Android’s emergence, along with the rise of the bring-your-own-device movement and its effects on enterprise IT. He’s also interested in cloud computing and SaaS (software as a service), which is “obviously very important,” he said, adding, “I always thought it wouldn’t be.” But the rise in cloud computing changed his viewpoint, with SaaS central to that, now having obvious advantages in many areas such as back-office, legal, accounting and human resources.
“So, if you were HP, you’re sitting right in the cross hairs [of that industry movement] and the great hope was going to be Autonomy,” he said. “I think they just didn’t do the right due diligence, but the idea was probably right, to build it through an acquisition. It just wasn’t the right one.”
When his book was first published, von Simson was engaged in cybersecurity research that he couldn’t say much about at the time, but returned to in his most recent interview with IDG News Service. “Everybody’s vulnerable,” he said. “That’s what I knew but couldn’t really tell you last time we talked, was that we knew that all of our clients had been penetrated—everybody. You might ask, ‘didn’t they have security?’ Well, yeah, they all had great security. It’s just hopeless.”
So hopeless, in fact, that he believes the comments last October from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were not unnecessarily alarmist. “I think he was two or three years late. I don’t think it is overblown. Just from my observations and talking to our clients, I don’t think it’s overblown.”
Ultimately, network infrastructure has to be rethought and retooled, he said. “I have a funny feeling that all of the money we’ve spent on making these systems efficient and friendly and accessible has been right in one notion and exactly wrong in another notion.” And it may be too late to fix what’s wrong in any easy way, von Simson suggested, bringing up the idea of fingerprint identification as a savior. “What if somebody steals your thumbprint? Then you’re done.”
A less-serious topic of previous discussion had been his views of social networking, specifically Facebook, which in July 2010 he called “banal.” While he is a Facebook member, he only checks in there every six months of so, but that’s not because he’s averse to social networking itself. “I really love LinkedIn,” he said, adding that he finds it a worthy vehicle for reconnecting and staying in touch with people in his line of work.
“I think you need a business model for these social networks,” he said. “Absent that, it’s just too annoying. So figure out a way to do that—and it’s almost impossible to do it going backwards.”
At one point in the conversation, von Simson said that if he’d had the same insights at the beginning of writing the book that led him to pen the epilogue that he could write yet another book. But by the end of the interview, the question of whether he’s got another book in him is begging to be asked.”I think so,” he said, “but I’m not exactly sure how to attack it. It’s scary when you start a book.”