If I Read History Aright

By: on August 21, 2007

I just re-read Merrill Chapman’s highly readable “In Search of Stupidity”, an encyclopedia of high-tech bungling from Silicon Valley. As the title suggests, the book is partly a counterpunch to management bestseller “In Search of Excellence”, and its main theme a cheeky mirror image of Tom Peters’ focus on corporate culture and efficiency.

Chapman advises technology companies to concentrate instead on “avoiding the icebergs”. He singles out Microsoft as a company which has been remarkably successful at doing this. In the ensuing case studies, he bolsters his viewpoint, which almost counts as a theory of history. Each cautionary tale stars a company which threw away a commanding market position with one single, fatal mistake.

The book is engaging because of its theme that giants stumble, puncturing all the slick marketing and apparently infallible corporate master plans with often devastating accuracy. No one is immune: Microsoft fail to notice the rise of the Internet, Intel try to gloss over critical flaws in their flagship processor, IBM plough billions into the doomed OS/2.

In this vein, Chapman dissects the pretensions and pratfalls of Lotus, Borland, and others who once rode tall, taking the launch of the IBM PC as his starting point. Tellingly, some of the company names are already unfamiliar: Ashton-Tate and MicroPro, who are you?

The style is occasionally annoying. Chapman uses a particularly laboured analogy with Civil War-era stagecoaches to tell the story of 1980s microcomputing. By contrast, his account of Microsoft’s marketing strategy strikes an almost mystical note, and suggests a diabolical cunning worthy of Sun Tzu.

For me the interesting comparison is with real history. In this context, the “great mistake” theory seems inadequate, an oversimplification of things. Even so, Chapman is probably right to see it as a more lasting management nostrum than the Tom Peters version.

I note with interest that Chapman’s book now has an updated second edition, no doubt applying the same insider knowledge to the likes of Yahoo, eBay and Google.


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