You can almost smell the fear, as the cloud revolution promises to be as disruptive as the PC revolution once was. No wonder many are turning to a timely new book, "The Limits of Strategy," by veteran consultant Ernest von Simson, who saw up close how once-great firms like Digital Equipment and Wang Labs were felled by the PC.
The scariest part: Even leaders who grasp what's happening to them often can't change cost structures and business models fast enough to survive.
The Wall Street Journal
March 9, 2011
"Potentially destructive change is a constant in business."
So begins The Limits of Strategy, a book that offers insight into what traits enabled some large companies to survive and even thrive during times of massive change, while others faltered and failed.
The author, Ernest von Simson, has an impressive background in the technology sector, most notably as the co-founder of Research Board, an international think-tank that investigates what developments are coming in the computing world and how their funders should adapt in response.
A dense, fascinating look at the history of critical moments for key players in the computing industry, von Simson's book takes a microscopic look at how key companies, founders and CEOs made decisions that would lead either to their success or their decline and eventual failure.
The point being that there are limits to how much strategy can help us during times of disruptive technological change.
The challenge, von Simson writes, is that "... almost any strategy an incumbent CEO can devise will be useless in the face of truly disruptive technology, because it begins a new game that demands a completely different business model and, equally, a different management discipline. That's where strategy meets its limit and leadership dominates."The book explores several recurring themes, such as:
- Vision is not always enough;
- The things that made a company great can also be a barrier to change; and
- Having "first mover" status does not necessarily protect a company from failure.
The Limits of Strategy is not a book to pick up and skim for ideas. Rather, it is a deftly researched and presented history of how the computing world's giants reacted during critical times. The time needed to read it carefully is sure to be a worthwhile investment for any businessperson asking how to best adapt to the current wave of technology-driven change in business.
What a terrific "up close and personal" observer's story! This book, built around twenty-five years of personal interviews and consequent `industry analyses' of the strategies, achievements and leadership of America's computer companies (and here and there, some Japanese companies and an occasional mention of a couple of European vendors), chronicles the views, approaches, mistakes, and hubris of some legendary IT figures and companies during the critical years from 1974 to 2000. These were the years that, out of hundreds of contenders, only a few companies conceived, built, and sold the leading IT products and services, from mainframes to personal computers plus attendant software, that shaped the Information Age as we now know it.
Probably no one else in the world had the opportunity to compare and contrast the key players over such an extended period. Ernest and his wife Naomi Seligman created and ran the highly respected Research Board throughout this period, personally conducting annual interviews at every major company which was prominent in the unfolding phases of the rapid shifts from mainframe to minicomputer to microcomputer, from discrete devices to unimaginable densities of CMOS chips. The key contribution here was to approach it from the Research Board client side, which were the top 100 IT managers of America - a perfect setup: serving the dogs, and asking about new dogfood recipes.
If von Simson had just done a historical timeline, it would have been interesting, but he gave us much more. He illuminates the key personalities, analyzes the strategies and trends, and contrasts the issues that each company faced in an engaging, insightful rollicking story from start to finish. There is quite simply no other book like it about this magnificent era and the sometimes tortuous paths and decisions that determined the outcomes.
Perhaps most delicious are the witty wry observations about many folk - unflattering sometimes, but almost always unerring: DEC's "Gordon Bell, a world-class computer master with less competence or interest in complex management"; "the slightly beer-bellied Jimmy (Treybig of Tandem Computers) was slouched back in his chair, cowboy boots propped on his desk"; "Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the disarmingly pixyish genius who led IBM campaigns"; HP's John Young "body flexing" and HP's Dick Hackborn, "enormous personal charisma, but also a grumbling enigma."
Sure, some quibbles arise for the purist reader, important if the book is to be treated as history, relatively unimportant if it is treated as an insightful memoir. It is not long on data, and a host of key names are misspelled; some key figures are curiously omitted. One good editing session would serve this book well; it is destined to provide history scholars in the future with some impressive insight, and a second printing could clean up most of the issues.
More seriously, it is limited to "Business Computing" which will matter little to most readers, but matters a lot for 'the compleat story of computing'. Dismissing HP's long history of scientific computing, not to mention SGI, Cray, and much of CDC and even IBM contributions as "congenitally idiosyncratic" displays an inappropriately ignorant focus only on office products.
I heartily recommend the book for anyone who lived the period, for someone who simply loves business history, but most importantly for those who believe that it is easy to manage through disruptive times, and haven't yet had their turn at bat. It should be required study in MBA programs.
Media X @ Stanford University
Strategy's Limits: A chat with IT pioneer Ernest von Simson
As co-founder of The Research Board, an exclusive, IT-focused think tank established in 1970, Ernest von Simson watched time and again as corporate leaders took their companies through change and crises over three decades. During those years, he came to believe that steadfastness is the most vital leadership characteristic for success, as he demonstrates in his new book, "The Limits of Strategy: Lessons in Leadership from the Computer Industry".Read More
July 30, 2010
The Limits of Strategy A new book examines real-world case studies in order to help understand the unique challenges of technology industry leadership. A chat with IT pioneer Ernest von Simson Read More