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Nokia – a lesson in corporate denial

by Scott Bicheno on 2 June 2011, 15:40

Tags: Nokia (NYSE:NOK)

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Buzzword bingo

As a writer I frequently marvel at the alternative dialect used in the corporate world. At first it appears to be English, but then you realise many of the words used at work never make it into the real world.

The reason for this, I think, is that you don't have to try to sound busier or more authoritative than you really are when you're at the pub with your mates or at home. And even if you did they'd call you out as a bullshitter straight away.

We get a lot of this stuff from the States - a country with an established fondness for euphemisms and pseudo-legalese - as we do much of our corporate culture. So we don't say ‘time', we say ‘bandwidth'; we don't ‘use', we ‘leverage'; we ‘transition' instead of ‘move'; and that's just the low-hanging fruit, I haven't even got onto the long tail yet.

What annoys me most about this kind of talk is that it seems designed to skirt around the edge of things, to enable people to come out of meetings with a warm, self-satisfied glow, remarking to each other: "I thought that went well" when in fact nothing whatsoever had even been discussed, let alone resolved.

It's also born of fear. If you speak out you risk sticking your head above the trench and getting it shot off by people who owe their corporate success to ensuring everyone else gets the blame for stuff. Even resisting the use of all these needless buzzwords can be enough to make you a target, so you go to the meetings, pretend to think outside the box, and pity the poor fool who didn't go with the flow.

This sort of nonsense is endemic in large companies, where bullshitters have plenty of room carve out their little fiefdoms and protect them with a moat of impenetrable jargon (don't even get me started on the public sector), and that's not a problem if that company is doing well. But what if it needs to change, fundamentally?

That's the situation many tech companies find themselves in these days, thanks mainly to the mobile device revolution catalysed by Apple and Google. Many companies threatened by this paradigm shift have reliable cash cows to fall back on, such as Microsoft with Windows and Intel with PC chips, and that has led them to react slower than they should have to the 2007 launch of the iPhone. But some don't.

Nokia is probably the company most profoundly affected by the growth of iOS and Android, and as CEO Stephen Elop has admitted once more, Nokia's response to the launch of the iPhone in 2007 was woefully inadequate. You can see an edited video of him saying as much at the recent All Things D event here, but even more revealing is today's Bloomberg Businessweek cover story, which features interviews with Elop and other Nokia execs.

It's a story of corporate arrogance, complacency, denial and hubris of Shakespearean proportions. When the iPhone launched Nokia scoffed (as did many others, it must be said). Its hubris was augmented by the geek's tendency to look at the product as the sum of its parts, rather than an overall concept. Yes, the iPhone was in many ways technically deficient, but it completely redefined the user experience and, to most non-geeks, that's what matters.

And Nokia was by far the biggest seller of smartphones in the world, based on the once innovative OS Symbian. You can just imagine all the internal meeting in which everyone reassured each other that Nokia was still the best and that dilettante Apple would soon discover some harsh realities about the mobile phone world. "The attitude was that we'd tried touchscreens before, and people didn't like them," said one former employee in the Bloomberg piece.

But even while Apple cleaned up at the high-end, there was still the consolation that it would never be a mainstream alternative. Then Android started to gather momentum. "It's often hard to see a challenger when you're dominant, but what happened with Android was faster than anything we've ever seen," said Elop.

Only then did the penny drop that the ten-year-old Symbian OS wasn't going to hack it in the mobile platform era. It's not that Symbian's bad, it's just that everything else is better. Nokia had shown some awareness of this in developing its Maemo Linux mobile OS, and at MWC 2010 announced it was contributing Maemo to a joint mobile platform effort with Intel called MeeGo.