On the old glories of technology

IMAGE: The decisions that bring down the tallest technology towers - ABC

Laura Montero, from ABC, called me to talk about companies that were once everything in the technological scene, but that fell out of favor due to various factors and became completely irrelevant or disappeared. Today, in his article entitled «The decisions that bring down the tallest tech towers» (pdf), Laura cites some of my comments.

The conversation was very interesting because it made me realize to what extent my path in the analysis of the technological world has led me to be able to follow in great detail the evolution of some of these companies, in some cases with visions that came to include contact with many of its top managers.

Cases such as Nokia or BlackBerry, companies that have not disappeared, but that today represent a tiny part of the volume of business or the relevance that they came to have: when I arrived in the United States in 1996, the vast majority of users they did not have a mobile phone (which was then beginning to be reasonably ubiquitous in many European countries) but a simple pager, and the Nokia terminals that my wife or I used were dramatically above average, a situation that was quite shocking considering that I was a simple student there. When, a few years later, Steve Jobs, in an auditorium in San Francisco, presented the iPhone, few even imagined that the change of concept that it brought with it, and that made companies like Nokia and BlackBerry completely obsolete.

The response to the iPhone from those companies and a few others I lived perfectly, to the point of talking about it with some of their top managers and founders, and I was completely blown away. It was an utter contempt: ‘it’ couldn’t possibly work, was ‘completely inferior’, ‘unsuitable for serious use’, and ‘would never displace their devices’. The result of that contempt, of that categorical refusal to consider that this device had completely reinvented its category, we all know it.

Other cases, such as Yahoo!, AOL, MySpace or Terra, also allowed me to closely observe the fall of the portal philosophy as if I were authentically examining laboratory animals, only instead of talking about white rats or vinegar flies, we were talking about companies with valuations of billions of dollars. To what extent trying to parallelize the structure and operation of the classic media in a new channel caused obsolescence, the inability to understand that there were new entrants that brought new ways of doing things and relating to information.

It took years for technology companies to understand that time on the internet passed so quickly, that if you missed a seemingly unimportant trend, you could be giving way to a new entrant with the ability to become obsolete. My fundamental principle that emerged from all that is the need to keep yourself very well informed, to understand everything that happens around you, to have a well-built radar and, above all, to be willing to try everything, humbly, as a user, until understand the reasons for its attractiveness.

At that time, and even now, I was faced with the paradox that when I spoke with managers of technology companies, there were many times when I, a humble professor of innovation, was better informed about what was happening in their industry or even in their own company than themselves, something that completely blew me away. But it was not a sensation: sometimes it could be attributed to the concentration on the day-to-day of those managers, or to how far the regional managers were from the decision centers, but it was real, and in many ways, that lack of knowledge, that tendency to look at the navel was almost a diagnosis of what would come later.

I talked to Laura about those issues and those experiences, and I also try to talk to my students when we deal with the difficulty of maintaining corporate innovation at high levels, or of always being attentive to the environment to try to understand the phenomenon of disruption. One of those conversations that makes you think, and not only about how old you are and how much you’ve already seen (but also 🙂 Think about how extremely intelligent people and enormously powerful corporations could have made the decision not to pay attention to the concepts or the developments that were going to make them obsolete, with signs so clear that, apparently, everyone could see – except them. As managers, we cannot spend all our time studying what other people are doing. But systematically ignoring or neglecting it is also a recipe for disaster.

This article is also available in Spanish on my Medium page, «How even the biggest beasts can sometimes stumble and fall«

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