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Never Hurd of the new HP boss?

Don't worry! We've read him for you

By Andrew Orlowski, 29 Mar 2005

Profile There's a theory that British Prime Ministers, and England football managers, alternate between being bishops and bookmakers. A risk-taking rascal is succeeded by a dull, safe pair of hands, until the public clamor for the rascal once again.

By replacing the high-profile Carly Fiorina with the low-impact Mark Hurd from NCR, Hewlett Packard would appear to be following that script. The appointment of Hurd seems to signal that the board thinks HP's core business is sound, and requires an administrator rather than a visionary. What's needed at HP, they seem to want to tell us, are a few nuts tightened and tweaked, here and there. It's a steady-as-she-goes appointment.

HP's executive team bio for Hurd prizes, as his top asset, "successful efforts to improve operating efficiency" - a message to Wall Street that at least one aspect of Carly's tenure will remain unchanged.

So differences between the ousted CEO and its new leader may only be nuances of style. In addition, by appointing Hurd, the board looks to have tightened its control over the company to ensure that an autocratic Fiorina-style figure never has such power again. The bio notes that Hurd [built] "a strong leadership team" - in contrast to Fiorina, who left behind weak senior management and no obvious internal successor.

The man and his words

Much of what we know about Hurd can be gleaned from published interviews and a recently-published book he co-authored, which reveals him to be a fully paid up member of the information cult.

It's a book of staggering blandness, but in fairness, no more than thousands like it: the CEO's management manual. Hurd's contribution to this heaving bookshelf is called The Value Factor: How Global Leaders Use Information for Growth and Competitive Advantage - a title to send anyone to sleep.

Here's an example.

In "Risk Management 101", a helpful box-out found on page 100 of The Value Factor, in the chapter named "CONTROL" (!), - Hurd writes, "Customer risk is the internally generated risk that we lose customers or they act in a way that damages our business." (An example of the latter being customers who refill their own ink cartridges). Then there's "Market risk" - "the externally generated risk of surprises in the marketplace" - and Operational risk, which hardly needs to be spelled out.

Clearly this is the cautious, actuarial approach of an accountant, forever weighing one risk against another - classic Bishop material. But what is Hurd's advice? You can probably already guess.

"Customer risk, market risk and operational risk all stem from the same source - lack of information."

It's the foundation of his world view, and a point Hurd soberly stresses in interviews whenever he can. Two years ago he told CNET,

"Great companies align people throughout their organization. But if the information isn't aligned, it's hard to align the people." [our emphasis]

What's wrong with this picture?

The information cult

When someone praises or blames "information", they're usually blowing smoke. "Information" is not some special kind of stuff, and simply deifying "information" doesn't tell you anything about what's going on, because it's contingent on its context. Information doesn't mean knowledge, and knowledge doesn't mean wisdom.

There's much more to running a business than aligning "information", as if this was some kind of neat arrangement of I-Ching sticks.

You need to know what the "information" means. The information "flows" generated by a hit portable music player - look very different to the information flows from an unsuccessful product - such as an unsuccessful line of workstations. The CEO may become expert at pattern recognition (and HP has had plenty of New Age advice on that front), but staring at the patterns doesn't help with the predictive instincts that often go into making a hit product.

That's the essential risk of entrepreneurship, and it's a wildly unpredictable factor. The technocratic management culture of the modern MBA school tries to minimize that risk, and so we have remedies such as "Information Alignment", which tell us nothing. Hurd is very much a product of his time.

"Boards and investors hate surprises," he writes, as he praises "the kind of reliability market recognizes." [p.5] "Surprises disrupt the momentum of a company and can destroy value."

HP established its reputation with great products and great services, and Hurd may yet surprise us all. We'd love to have an HP CEO who wrote a hair-raising book on how their hits and flops came to market. But thanks to the banality of the MBA culture the US doesn't seem to produce such CEOs any more. We have an Information Cult, instead.

Globalization is beginning to resemble a race to the bottom - with industrial giants in each continent being required make cost-cutting ("operational efficiencies") the top priority. But when buyers favour quality over quantity, and demand great products and great services, it's then that the cash registers really start going "Ker-ching!". And that's called the Value Factor. ®

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