Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The importance of unlearning

Among academic research on knowledge, creativity and innovation in the 1980s and 1990s was a smaller body of research on forgetting (or unlearning). The importance of unlearning was one of those insights that seemed counter-intuitive at first, but over time the argument grew on me until I realized it captured an essential truth of organizational change.

Perhaps the most-cited article here is the 1986 article by CK Prahalad and Rich Bettis on the “dominant logic” — the idea that managers filter their environment (particularly opportunities) through a cognitive framework rooted in past results. A simpler way to put it is the old saying “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (attributed to Maslow).

Two things happened Monday to link this idea to Microsoft, Windows Mobile and the company’s future role (if any) in the smartphone space. (Time spent in a steel tube prevented me from posting this earlier).

First, serial entrepreneur (and loyal blog reader) Doug Klein got an op-ed published in in which he comments on Microsoft’s trouble thus far transferring its desktop Windows quasi-monopoly to the handset. His first paragraph is punchy and to the point:

As a start-up focused on delivering services to the next generation mobile Internet devices, we are constantly amazed at the failure of Microsoft to repeat its Windows and Office success in the mobile world. And the problem is just that: Microsoft has a history of seeing all opportunities within the narrow definition of its existing world and past wins. Repeatedly they have seen new devices, for example, as simply "little PCs." This has led to a long litany of disappointments in handhelds that will repeat unless a new approach is realized. [emphasis mine]
Second, I spend all day Monday at a conference on platform strategies hosted by Annabelle Gawer of Imperial College in London (more on the conference later). The closing event was a panel discussion with four industry and six academic representatives (including yours truly).

After Annabelle asked the industry panelists how their platform strategies have changed, I jumped in with a question to the Intel and Microsoft representatives. I didn't have my laptop on the panel (and couldn’t have typed while saying the question), but roughly what I asked was “You have a dominant position in the desktop platform, but it hasn’t worked that way in the mobile space. What’s different?”

The Intel rep, Alberto Spinelli, said that the mobile ecosystem is more complex, in that Intel has to try to influence government bodies and standards committees. Also, the industry is facing a convergence of PC and communications — not just in technology but in business and industrial dynamics. (Later on, he also emphasized the technical aspects of success, such as their Atom microprocessor being introduced this week in Shanghai.)

The Microsoft rep was Simon Brown. These are my written notes of his answer:
“Rule #1, there’s no single playbook or rulebook. … It’s pretty clear there will never be another business like the Windows business.” He then added that the second best business is the Office business, so there won’t be anything close to these two.

Microsoft has been working for years on Windows Mobile, and it has been a highly iterative process. “You have to be prepared to unlearn a lot of things.” For example, Microsoft has to do things for handset makers it never did before [for PC makers] and thus has to learn to “rewrite our own rules”.
In the program, Simon was listed as “Vice President, Field Evangelism, Developer and Platform Group”. He took on these responsibilities for EMEA in 2003 and worldwide in 2007, so obviously he’s spent a lot of time thinking about ecosystem management. I thought he was one of the most insightful and articulate speakers on the panel, and the fellow academics that I talked to afterwards seemed to agree.

Ironically, a year ago I blogged on mobile phone platform fragmentation after a visit to Annabelle at Imperial. For “platform” I meant mobile phone operating systems such as Microsoft’s; on the hardware side, ARM-licensed processors have a near monopoly, a monopoly that Intel hopes will someday be its own.

If Microsoft hopes to consolidate the world around Windows Mobile, it has its work cut out for it. I don’t see anyone displacing Symbian in the global market, while in North America both the iPhone and Blackberry will continue to grow more quickly than Windows Mobile. Still, Simon’s answer suggested Microsoft has figured out that “same old, same old” won’t work.

This remind me of something Apple friend used to say. The challenge of competing with Microsoft was not their 1.0, which was almost always terrible — but if it was an important market, they had enough money and determination to keep iterating and making it better, until they eventually had a winning product. (Sorta like the Terminator, except that you get at least one chance to live.)

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