USA: Techknow - The people and products shaping your future - Lessons from Silicon Valley.

USA: Techknow - The people and products shaping your future - Lessons from Silicon Valley. - Hewlett-Packard, traditionally the Mr Nice Guy of Silicon Valley, is trying hard to look tough these days. HP is one of the oldest computer companies in the Vall

by ROGER TAYLOR.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Hewlett-Packard, traditionally the Mr Nice Guy of Silicon Valley, is trying hard to look tough these days. HP is one of the oldest computer companies in the Valley and while brash young rivals such as Sun Microsystems like to talk about kicking ass, it has always been more at ease with words such as trust, integrity and community responsibility. What's more, its employees have always seemed to believe in what they rather smugly refer to as 'the HP way'.

But flagging growth and a weak share price have prompted something of a crisis of faith: executives are already talking about getting more 'aggressive'.

The new mood has led to a previously unthinkable decision to break the company in two, and has prompted the retirement of chief executive Lew Platt.

Of course there is no automatic connection between HP's happy-family approach and its recent lacklustre performance financially. It will be a shame if HP thinks that tough means nasty, but the increasingly macho language of competition - where rivals are 'trashed' and markets 'dominated' - inevitably suggests that being cosy in the workplace makes you soft in the marketplace.

One side-effect of HP's rethink is that it no longer looks likely to be the first large computer company to be run by a woman. The company traditionally has appointed its chief executive from the inside. Two of the leading candidates are Ann Livermore, who runs the Enterprise Computing division, and Carolyn Ticknor, who runs the printer business. However the company now says it plans to consider outside candidates, greatly lengthening the odds against either of them getting the job.

DIRECTORS of Alcatel, the French telecommunications company, have been under fire recently for failing to hit financial targets. But if they want to know what it's really like to be 'under fire', they should ask Steve Kim, head of Xylan, the Californian computer networking company acquired by Alcatel in March.

In a bizarre incident earlier this year, Kim was fired on by a sniper as he left Xylan's office building. Police found a spent shell at the scene but have failed to track down the sniper.

One theory is that a disgruntled investor, frustrated by Xylan's woeful market performance, decided to take direct action against the management, a suggestion dismissed by the company. If true, it could presage a troubled new chapter in investor relations. Shareholder lawsuits are bad enough, but shareholder terrorism? How long before the global fund-management industry establishes a provisional wing to take up the armed struggle for shareholder rights? Alcatel should think carefully about what it is getting into.

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