Nokia blues

Nokia: Culture will out

A wonderful series of insights from Adam Greenfield (Formerly head of design direction for service and user-interface design at Nokia)

I’m even using his cheery photo through Nokia’s window.

He writes on the contrast between the daily and weekly rhythms of work in his own practice, and what he saw during two years at Nokia.

Executive summary: “Despite the omnipresent burden of responsibility, and the inherent risk of failure, there’s an excitement and pleasure in working on one’s own behalf that was for the most part missing entirely from my Nokian experience. The word I keep coming back to, in my head, is “unbound,” and it’s an unbelievably lovely and liberating sensation.”

His new experiences indicate why you shouldn’t look for innovation from large organizations. Of course its also a comment on Nokia’s recent and ongoing troubles.“Our size lets us move fast. We’ve taken this from first notion to Illustrator sketch to technical validation to “Patent Pending” in mere weeks, and not very many of them. This is in distinct contrast to my experience in Espoo, where anybody wanting to launch anything at all had to secure layers (upon layers) of buy-in from people who — in many but certainly not all cases, and with all due respect — are not properly equipped to evaluate the merits of the propositions they’re being presented with.

I’m hesitant to generalize. Honestly, I am. But my personal experience suggests that rather than acting as the incubator/force multiplier/accelerator it ought to have, Nokia’s corporate culture served as a brake on all kinds of innovative thought.”

I don’t think there’s anybody involved with doing something innovative in a big group or company who can’t understand this!

Being better-equipped to detect and respond to actual user needs.

“Nokia’s problem is not, and has never been, that it lacks for creative, thoughtful, talented people, or the resources to turn their ideas into shipping product. It’s that the company is fundamentally, and has always been, organized to trade in commodities. Whether those commodities were stands of timber, reams of paper, reels of cable, pairs of boots, or cheap televisions for deployment in hotel chains, much the same basic logic applied: acquire, or manufacture, great quantities of a physical product for the lowest achievable cost, and sell for whatever the market will bear.

Nokia’s engineers were and are brilliant at this. I am so far from an expert on the topic it’s not even funny, but I’d feel comfortable wagering that there is still no organization on the planet more capable at designing the guts of a phone, the various antennae and radios-on-a-chip that allow a handset to communicate with a network. Nor are there many who can compete with Nokia on the ability to optimize a supply chain and bring in a given bill of materials at a given (and generally astonishingly low) cost.

These are precisely the skills you need if you’re interested in dominating a global market in commodity communication devices, as Nokia did for the fourteen years of the Jorma Ollila era. But the company utterly failed to anticipate, understand or organize itself to deal with the critical thing that happened at the cusp of the Ollila-Kalasvuo transition. This was that you could no longer think of mobile phones as communication devices. You had to conceive of them as interface objects through which users would experience content and command functionality that ultimately lived on the network.

Individuals at Nokia, of course, did understand this as the article points out.

However, the earlier point is the crux of it.

“As it happens, the value-engineering mindset that’s so crucial to profitability as a commodity trader is fatal as a purveyor of experiences. Of course you still want to produce your offering for the lowest achievable cost — but that cost is bound up in intangible, nondeterministic dimensions of design, in ways that are only partially-at-best quantifiable. It’s just not particularly wise to allow engineers to make decisions about things like product and service nomenclature, interface typography and the graphic design of icons: they’re, I daresay, not even neurocognitively equipped to do so. And yet this is what happened when I was at Nokia and, I would imagine, is happening still.”

Although respectful, Adam remains convinced that “at Nokia, engineering has been allowed to displace what is properly the company’s design prerogative almost entirely”

He gives a great example about NFC and Nokia’s readiness with this technology but concludes:

“Bottom line: the “magic” of an NFC-based transaction, the “surprise and delight” our esteemed colleagues in Marketing so often demand we wrest out of technological interactions, was foreclosed from the beginning. All of the potential lightness and elegance that would make this not merely a possible way of doing things but a better way was ruled out, by an organization committed to the virtues of engineering rather than those of design.”

In essence they don’t bother ‘polishing’ or a

“blunter way of putting it: there’s nobody with any taste in the decision-making echelons at Nokia…..We’re happy if our product is viable enough that it reaches an audience, and contributes in any way to making those lives easier. It doesn’t have to be a blockbuster. This raises a related issue, which is that Espoo is only and solely interested in scale. In Nokian terms, this generally means “on the order of tens of millions of users.” On the surface, this is defensible, but it means the company doesn’t really have many innovation pathways open to it.

It certainly can’t tolerate the kind of lowercase experiments that other institutions benefit from, whether these are inherently viable businesses generating high-multiple ROIs that are, however, small in absolute terms, or probes like Twitter that enjoy no clear business model at their outset, but later find scale and thereby produce value.
In concrete terms, this means that projects like Nokia Sports Tracker — one of the best things I saw during my time in Espoo, and in my opinion actually superior to the Nike+ iPod offering — are abandoned, orphaned, starved of the oxygen they need. This despite what I would have thought was the obvious fact that it’s projects like these that lend your brand an aura of futurity, build consumer enthusiasm and loyalty, and generally make your company more attractive as a place for people to work. In other words, they pay for themselves many times over and in many ways, whether or not they generate revenue. If nothing else, they cut down on headhunter bills; a company that fully and whole-heartedly supports homegrown initiatives like Sports Tracker is a place where bright developers will want to play.”

Finally, not having been too kind to the mid and upper management, Adam does concede that “they,” in this context, unavoidably includes many who have been doing their absolute best, under truly thankless conditions, for far, far too long.

Nothing like a horse’s mouth.

Original Article here –

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