Can Big Be Fast? And Does It Want To?

Ashlee Vance’s comprehensive piece on Microsoft in the New York Times yesterday raised a few question that are often pondered here in Silicon Valley: can big companies run a decent 40-yard dash?  And do they want to anyway? Vance gives plenty of column inches to critics’ who characterize “Microsoft’s path as a long spiral toward irrelevance.”  Author Nicholas […]

Ashlee Vance’s comprehensive piece on Microsoft in the New York Times yesterday raised a few question that are often pondered here in Silicon Valley: can big companies run a decent 40-yard dash?  And do they want to anyway? Vance gives plenty of column inches to critics’ who characterize “Microsoft’s path as a long spiral toward irrelevance.”  Author Nicholas […]

Ashlee Vance’s comprehensive piece on Microsoft in the New York Times yesterday raised a few question that are often pondered here in Silicon Valley: can big companies run a decent 40-yard dash?  And do they want to anyway?

Vance gives plenty of column inches to critics’ who characterize “Microsoft’s path as a long spiral toward irrelevance.”  Author Nicholas G. Carr says, “I think Microsoft is still moving pretty slowly as it shifts at least part of its business to the cloud.  Some of that is due to its corporate culture, but I think most of it is due to it trying to protect very lucrative businesses with high profit margins.”

Moving slowly has been the death of many a lumbering giant, from the T-Rex to General Motors.  Is it even possible for a giant to be quick and agile?  If you’re Dwight Freeney, yes.  But if you’re a multi-billion dollar company, the issue is still an open debate.

In June, Chris Anderson wrote in Wired that “the next new economy, the one rising from the ashes of this latest meltdown, will favor the small.”  To underscore the point he quoted venture capitalist Paul Graham: “”It turns out the rule ‘large and disciplined organizations win’ needs to have a qualification appended: ‘at games that change slowly.’

And as we all know, tech can change the landscape overnight.  So why did the August 29-September 4 edition of the Economist declare in big, bold font on the cover: “Big is back.  The return of the corporate giant?”  Well, one of the reasons the giants “have the advantage again,” as the magazine put it, is because of “the emergence of companies that have discovered how to be entrepreneurial as well as big…..giants (that) are getting better at minimizing the costs of size…while exploiting its advantages.”

Entrepreneurial as well as big.  That feels like the crux of it to me.  But sometimes a company can have the desire, but the behavior doesn’t match.  How many PR pros have worked with clients who allocate most of the PR budget to today’s commodity cash-cow products, while leaving the innovative products–yes, the ones that can be tomorrow’s cash cow–tin-cupping for resources?  Unfortunately, it still happens all the time.

What I like about the Economist’s take is it’s not “either/or.”  Big can be entrepreneurial.  But it takes a lot more than professed desire and a great messaging document.  The question isn’t whether big companies can be big and agile; it’s more whether they will be as rare in the business world as the Dwight Freeneys are in the NFL.

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