How steep will the cost of HP's dysfunctional family be?

Summary:This morning, as I scanned the most recent IT headlines and spotted Stephen Shankland's HP overhauls Integrity server  line, I couldn't help but spot the incredible irony in HP's choice of brand name for its servers -- Integrity -- while the company's leadership is right now enduring a fallout from a lapse of it.

This morning, as I scanned the most recent IT headlines and spotted Stephen Shankland's HP overhauls Integrity server  line, I couldn't help but spot the incredible irony in HP's choice of brand name for its servers -- Integrity -- while the company's leadership is right now enduring a fallout from a lapse of it.

News outfits and the blogosphere (although the story remains suprisingly "undugg") are having a field day with the washing of HP's dirty laundry and most of what I've read appears to be very much focused on the incident du jour and the resultant inquiries. But what about the bigger picture? If you ask me, it was only a matter of time before all of HP's pent up dysfunction exploded into a headline grabbing scandal.  

Dysfunctional families are usually small enough to break the chain of dysfunction thereby setting the family on a course of repair and reconciliation. In the soul searching HP must now do, it has to figure out how ingrained an unwritten code of silence and punishment is into its culture and try to plot a course towards being a far more open and transparent company. Particularly since it's public. Otherwise, it will eventually collapse under the weight of its own dysfunction. Customers may not penalize HP for its cultural misgivings. But a demoralized employee-base will.

Across separate and in some cases unrelated blog posts (1, 2, 3), I think Podtech's Robert Scoble unwittingly hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

If I found out my employer were using that kind of method I’d be looking over my shoulder and finding another job. I don’t want to work for the KGB.....How did HP handle it? Well, you can go over to Google News, just like I did and see. No video. No candor. No accountability. Nothing other than an official press announcement without a press conference.....By the way, isn’t [Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz's] blog the best executive communication out there?

The first question this brings to mind is: Where is HP CEO Mark Hurd's blog? In this day and age of social networking, executives must look at their own companies with the attitude that "this isn't your father's corporation anymore."  The rules of engagement with your constituents -- particularly when it comes to controversy -- are changing before our very eyes. I'm not sure where the tipping point was. But, back in early 2005, as much as anyone would have preferred not to be such a guinea pig for the practice, David Sifry at Technorati may have turned a corner on behalf of the business world when he very openly and honestly dealt with a delicate and controversial matter regarding his young company. In a bout of the natives getting extremely restless, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is currently engaged in a similar dialogue as I write this blog.  As uncomfortable for Sifry as the Technorati incident might have been, the good news was that he had already for some time been wearing his heart on his sleeve in the blogosphere. Likewise, by Facebook's very nature, Zuckerberg practically put the welcome mat out for the two-way dialogue he's now having with a substantial number of Facebook users.

Publicly and gracefully dealing with that sort of controversy wasn't nearly the leap that it would be today for Mark Hurd if the HP CEO decided that now would be a good time to establish the sort of open dialogue that Schwartz has with Sun's constituents through his blog.  Imagine for example if Sun had the same drama to deal with or if Hurd was already "engaged."  With the public blogosphere having already been ingrained into Sun's culture, a healthy, virtual family meeting would be over by now and the company would be on to the next order of business.

But it's doubtful that a witchhunt on the order of what happened at HP (or what has also happened at Apple) is something that would ever happen at Sun. That's because Schwartz who  himself likes to prerelease secrets through his blog would be the witch. Technorati may be a private company therefore giving Sifry more freedom to openly discuss Technorati's business.  But at Sun, where openness starts at the top and employees are not just free but encouraged to openly debate, question, and solicit feedback regarding strategies, products, and ideas cultivates an entirely different atmosphere of partnership amongst all parties with a stake  (executives, employees, customers, stockholders, etc.). 

The resulting culture, where employees actually want to protect the company's interests because they know their opinions and thoughts count (or at least can be shared), is so much healthier. Contrary to popular belief, transparency is pro-innovation. Sure, mistakes will happen (as recently did when a member of the Windows Live team at Microsoft let slip some information about Windows Live Drive). But it's better to be on the path of fine tuning the rules of engagement as mistakes happen than to not have it be a part of the corporate culture in the first place.  Here again is a good place to ask: Where is Mark Hurd's blog? It starts at the top. 

I'm not trying to justify the leakage of sensitive information to the press. But, I'm reminded of the days when open source advocate Bruce Perens worked at HP where he literally had to have his freedom to be publicly critical of HP codified into his terms of employment.  As refreshing as his candor was to the outside world, Bruce's outspokenness was not nearly as welcome internally at HP and, in a split that he remained bitter about for some time (and may still well be), Bruce was forced to move on. IT Week headlined the story The man who spoke out once too often.

Topics: Hewlett-Packard


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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