Friday, July 12, 2013

Microsoft reorg: tragedy or farce?

There are many ways to interpret the massive “One Microsoft” reorg announced Thursday by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

One is as a corporate political drama. Mary Jo Foley (of ZDNet) and Sean Ludwig (of Venture Beat) report that winners include Terry Myerson (from head of Windows Phone engineering to all OS engineering), Qi Lu (head of online services engineering who adds Office) and Julie Larson-Green (head of Windows and Surface engineering, who adds Xbox and games). Losers are the presidents and CFOs of the five previous business units: Windows, Server and Tools, Microsoft Business Division, Entertainment and Devices and Online Services.

A second is as a plausible and sincere effort to revive Microsoft’s growth after more than a decade going sideways and now facing the collapse of the PC category that accounts for most of its OS an application profits. As the WSJ reported

Microsoft's restructuring follows a strategic plan, which began taking shape about a year ago, to shift its identity away from being a producer of operating systems and application software. Instead, the company wants to be known for devices—designed by Microsoft itself or by partners—and services that are closely tailored to work with that hardware.

The strategy shift, though it still relies heavily on software development, emulates the way rivals like Apple Inc. and Google Inc. have approached development of products such as smartphones and tablets.
The third way to view this is as reshuffling the deck chairs on the S.S. Titanic. JP Mangalindan of Fortune quotes an outside leadership consultant
"It's a great first step but won't get them to 'One Microsoft,'" says Randy Ottinger, EVP of the executive leadership strategy firm Kotter International. "The real question is what are they going to do post-reorganization to actually change the culture. The re-org will not change the way they behave and act because it's been years and years of doing business in a different way."
Similarly, Barb Darrow of Giga OM writes:
But it is crucial that the changes take direct aim at a long-running Microsoft problem: Fierce political infighting (see org chart diagram below.) When I covered the company day to day, the best way to get dirt on Office was to ask the Windows guys and vice versa. Clearly, after decades of that, and faced with huge and capable (and well funded) competition — Google, Apple, Amazon et al., Microsoft can’t afford to let that behavior stand.
and refers to a June 2011 cartoon contrasting Microsoft to Oracle, Facebook, Google and Apple (the latter updated after Steve Jobs’ death).

A fourth perspective is as an attempt to obfuscate a failed strategy by a failed CEO. As a Microsoft shareholder (NB: Dogs of the Dow), the only writer who seems to feel my pain is the anonymous Lex, writing 7,000 miles away at the Financial Times:
Everyone knows Microsoft’s challenge: its operating system and business software divisions account for 80 per cent of operating profits. These divisions’ core products were developed for personal computers. The PC is in decline, so those profits need protection or replacement. Investors deserve a clearer view of the strategy for doing that, and a reporting structure that allows them to see if it is working. While Microsoft’s overarching strategy has never been clear, its reporting structure has at least made it clear that, profit-wise, one product effort (server software) has been a smashing success while three others (online services, Xbox, phones) have been failures.

Any new structure must deliver at least that much clarity. And if Microsoft is committed to devices, investors should get systematic unit volume reporting. If software sales are becoming services sales, they should be told how the licence sales/subscription sales mix is shifting one quarter to the next. Failing this, they should assume the patient is unlikely to recover.
Most of all, I’m reminded of the Marxist saying that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Longtime Microsoft watchers are having a hard time in hiding the sarcasm in their skepticism. As the lead of the Business Week column observes
Microsoft Unveils Its Latest Reorg SpectacularBy Ashlee Vance July 11, 2013

Say this for Microsoft (MSFT) Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer: The man knows how to do a reorg, reorg, reorg.
Or even more to the point, Nitrozac and Snaggy capture this at the “Joy of Tech” cartoon. For maximum effect, read the whole cartoon, but here’s the punchline:
And then 2,700 words later:
So if I had to bet on tragedy or farce, “One Microsoft” looks more like farce.

Note to regular readers: Sorry for the delay in posting this, but I’m teaching this week in the KGI business bootcamp for life science postdocs.

Cartoon credits: Org chart by Manu Cornet,; Steve Ballmer as rendered by Nitrozac and Snaggy of

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