When I worked at Xerox many years ago, our division (unsuccessfully) competed with HP’s printer division. HP was the king of that sector, and all we could do was idolize the company and grapple for the dust they left behind. As masters of innovation, they drew the maps for everyone else to follow.
I hadn’t followed HP closely for some time, so when I ran into a profile of the company and its CEO in NY Times recently, I was a bit perplexed. Mark Hurd, who was brought in as the anti-Carly from NCR (not exactly the beacon of innovation), is known as a calculating left-brainer, obsessed with operational efficiency, and someone who would rather talk in numbers than words.
This worked out well for some time. Silicon Valley companies are not known for their operational efficiency, and this helped HP stay lean. But there’s more in the article. Since he arrived at HP, the HP Labs “has whittled down the number of projects it tackles at any given time to 30, from about 150”, and according to some employees “the willingness to take risks has faded”.
Really?! Is this HP, the “innovation company”? What did ever happen to the “HP Invent” mantra?
The core of HP’s products are in mature, highly commoditized sectors: printers, PCs, servers, storage devices, etc. And the problem with commoditization is the vicious cycle of continual price reductions feeding back into commoditization. Cost cutting becomes essential if the company is to survive, but the way to break this cycle is to feed innovation, to develop new technologies and product lines in order to ensure future revenue growth.
I thought I’d compare HP’s R&D expenditures to a couple of other companies: IBM, a tech behemoth, and Apple, the poster child for cutting edge products; and the results are quite surprising.
Here’s a look at how much each company spends on R&D as a % of revenues (common benchmark).
HP: 3% (lowered from 4% a year earlier)
Not a pretty picture for HP. IBM’s % is double that of HP’s. In fact, IBM spends over $6B in R&D annually (vs. HP’s $3.5B), and the result was that in 2008, IBM was awarded more patents than any other company. Apple has increased R&D expenditure by over 20% year-over-year but its % looks low because revenues also accelerated at a healthy pace.
And here’s a look at another (less popular) metric, the amount of R&D each company spends per employee.
Even an uglier picture for HP, and a big WOW for Apple (this also shows that Apple has significantly higher revenues per employee – talk about efficiency!). But even if we assume Apple is an anomaly, IBM spends about 45% more in R&D per employee than HP does – those patents didn’t come out of thin air.
By the time Hurd took over in 05, HP’s stock was already on an upward swing, and it continued its upwards move. Reasons for the rise: general market conditions, Hurd’s cost cutting measures, and top-line improvements from the Compaq acquisition, among other factors.
But there’s only so much fat a company can cut out, and right-sizing can help a company’s balance sheet and stock price for only so long. HP has lagged its peers in new and exciting market development. Is it counting on acquisitions to refresh its product portfolio? If not, where will its stock price end up 2-3 years from now? Is HP forced into cost cutting because of its commoditized markets or is it unintentionally digging itself deeper and deeper into the cycle?
Finally, is HP competing on operational efficiency or on an innovation platform? At its extreme, excessive sandbox experimenting can waste valuable corporate resources, but intense efficiency measures and streamlining work better on factory assembly lines, and not necessarily so with high-tech R&D organizations.
This is HP’s post-post-Carly era, and the company needs to plan and execute accordingly. Perhaps Mike Hurd can allow himself to unleash innovation on a massive scale at HP, and allow HP’s talent to start drawing the maps like they used to. It’ll be good for him, and even better for HP.