Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Lessons of aged icons


Q: Wasn't it just yesterday that Google was the coolest company on the planet? The New York Times says the online giant is now seen by techies as a lumbering behemoth, and employees are starting to leave for more nimble companies. Is it possible for an innovator to stay in the lead indefinitely, or is there always a "hungrier" competitor right around the corner? Do large companies offer the same shot at success, or do workers usually have to break away to seek the greater rewards?

Flying the Eastern Shuttle was once my idea of corporate chic, huddling with all those men in Important Suits on the way to Big Deals in Gotham.

As a college student, I found the best bargains in Hecht's basement on F Street.

In the Christmas season, I would wander through Garfinkel's, never able to afford the stuff but reveling in the lavish displays so reminiscent of John Wanamaker's on Market Street in my hometown Philadelphia.

Used to be that no day was complete without the Washington Star.

I'm sorry I gave away my TRS-80, it would probably fetch a good price among computer nostalgia buffs today.

I have a stack of old computers and laptops in my basement loaded with the "latest" software of their day, like my old friend Word Perfect, and my very first browser Netscape.

I used to access the Internet with a dial-up modem through AmericaOnline.

All gone. Eastern, Hecht's, Garfinkle's, Wanamaker's, the Washington Star, heaps of outmoded hardware and software, the detritus of once-venerable companies unable or unwilling to keep up with change. AOL is still around, but a pale shadow of its once-dominant industry leadership.

I used to read newspapers cover-to-cover. Now I mostly surf their screens.

I'm writing this blog for washingtonpost.com along with many other "guest" bloggers as part of the latest wave of Washington Post strategies to try to stay a few steps ahead of the tsunami of change in the old newspaper business.

Deep in the roots of every great corporate success story lurks the DNA of entropy and the possibility of failure. Companies and their products are highly organic, built and sustained to satisfy the demands of markets, which are nothing more than human need and desire fueled by innovation. When corporate leaders use jargon like "nimble" or "re-engineered," they are simply describing the necessity of keeping up with the continuous evolution of human demand for goods and services.

Companies that fail insist that people should want their products long after the consumer base moves on to new things. Expenses always increase for labor and materials, so the cost of providing the same products to a diminished consumer base eventually kills the company. Once people could access news online, for example, they stopped buying newspapers, an ongoing crisis for many media companies today. Cable television is beginning to experience the same problem as people drop their cable packages in favor of Internet-ready televisions.

Successful companies, on the other hand, devote considerable time and effort to discerning both present and future consumer demand, and then investing in products that not only satisfy the demand, but that also generate new kinds of demand. Fifteen years ago, I didn't know that I needed to carry my email in my pocket all day long --- fifteen years ago I didn't have email. Now, my Blackberry and I are inseparable, for better or worse.

Apple went from being nearly defunct to legendary renaissance as a result of a breakthrough in understanding that consumers mostly want to be able to carry their music, books, newspapers, videos and communications around in simple, elegant devices. Apple and Steve Jobs may well be the most controlling of business icons, but fundamentally, they have figured out how to satisfy the insatiable human desire for continuous innovation in technology interfaces.

Microsoft, on the other hand, may be the world's dominant software company, but like IBM's glacial pace in adapting to microcomputers, or AOL's complete misreading of the Internet market, Microsoft is missing some important market shifts, like the smooth integration of communications and entertainment software on cell phones and tablets. A recent survey revealed that only 7 percent of people contemplating a smartphone upgrade are likely to go with Microsoft's Windows mobile, compared to 28 percent for Google's Android and 25 percent for Apple's iPhone.

Google's technological inventions are so powerful that the company now displays a dangerous corporate hubris. In its quest for growth and domination, Google may well risk losing the kind of talent that can discern real consumer interests in favor of retaining talent that will keep building its own brilliant brand relentlessly.

But the brand, no matter how fantastic, will only last if its products truly satisfy markets, which requires at least an iota of interest in what consumers might want. People want to find directions easily, but they may not want a robotic vehicle constantly roaming their neighborhoods taking pictures of their homes and private lives for all the world to see.

Top talent today will not work for a corporate machine. Brand loyalty among workers is largely a relic. Brilliant minds are a hot commodity, and the best want to be associated with innovation. Google, Microsoft and other technology companies must sustain highly creative environments, focused on inventions that will thrill consumers, in order to keep the talent that is essential for corporate success.

By Patricia McGuire  |  December 6, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success in the workplace Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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