Silicon Insider: Putting HP Back Together

The cheering is over: the reports of dancing in the aisles at the Corvallis plant, the Ding Dongs (as in, "the Witch is Dead") handed out in Boise, the laid-off but still loyal ex-employees from Grenoble to Palo Alto who momentarily saw their stock jump in value.

It takes a special arrogance to destroy the World's Greatest Company, and one can only hope that Carly Fiorina carries that entry on her résumé forever.

But, thankfully, that is now the ugly past; Hewlett-Packard's Wilderness Years. Now the question becomes: What does HP do now?

This is not a theoretical question. Hewlett-Packard plays a vital role in the ecology not only of Silicon Valley, but the electronics industry -- arguably even in the world's economy. For more than a half-century, HP served not only as one of the great technical innovators, but also the greatest corporate cultural innovator. Think employee stock options, flex-time, management by objective, profit sharing … all were either invented or validated by the company.

For Silicon Valley, HP was not only the founding firm, but the embodiment of enlightened management, endless innovation and unimpeachable quality. Hewlett-Packard taught the Valley's entrepreneurial startups how to become real companies, and taught the founders of those firms how to become industry leaders and statesmen. During the Valley's hard times, HP also served as sanctuary from the vagaries of the business cycle and the hard-heartedness of less-enlightened bosses. And, as a company of den mothers and little league coaches, HP was a perpetual reminder to the wildcatters of the Valley (and in time, to the world) that you didn't have to surrender your life to succeed in the digital age.

At the heart of this corporate exceptionalism was the so-called "HP Way," a philosophy of doing business that was self-evident to HPers, but infuriatingly imprecise to outsiders -- so much so, that many dismissed it as mere mumbo-jumbo. The tragedy of Hewlett-Packard during the Carly years was that she thought so, too. Fiorina, whatever her inadequacies, was no fool: she rightly saw the HP Way as the greatest threat to her plan to remake the company in her own image, and did her level best to destroy it.

Unfortunately, it was the one job she did well. By the time she was tossed out, HP was not only no longer the best tech company in America, but one of the worst. It had become a place where employees lived in a perpetual fear of layoffs, their bosses reduced to functionaries delivering the latest bad news from executive row, where the stock sat paralyzed, and the chief executive officer embarked on crusades and acquisitions that nobody in the ranks believed would work. As demolished as Fiorina's reputation is today, she is, in fact, lucky to have been fired before the next boom led to HP hemorrhaging disgruntled employees from every doorway.

Now there is this horrible mess to clean up. HP today finds itself mired in commoditized businesses, such as personal computers and printers, where it doesn't belong. It is saddled with a giant anchor, Compaq, which it doesn't need. It will take years of divestiture, reorganization and reorientation to put the company back on the right track.

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