Why HP should emulate IBM, but not in that way

My 2012 technology travel season gets underway in a big way this month with two of the biggest channel conferences of the season: Hewlett-Packard’s global partner conference in Las Vegas and IBM’s PartnerWorld in New Orleans.

Besides looking forward to my first visit to Louisiana (I’ve been to Nevada too many times to count) I’m particularly excited to have these two events nearly back-to-back. HP and IBM have so many similarities, and in many ways IBM represents the company HP wants to be. Or at least wanted to be, before their last CEO change.

Each company is led by a dynamic new female CEO, and this will be the first chance HP’s Meg Whitman and IBM’s Virginia Rometty have to address their respective channel communities on a large scale. Both will be delivering conference keynotes, and both will be evaluated by different criteria.

IBM partners will want assurances Rometty is continuing the steady course charted by her predecessor Sam Palmisano; they’ll want channel specifics from new channel chief Mark Hennessy but from Rometty, they’ll want to see IBM continuing its investment in areas such as cloud computing and big data.

Over at HP, Whitman faces a more challenging task. With no steady direction to carry-on from her predecessor as CEO, Léo Apotheker, Whitman is going to have to clearly articulate a vision for the vendor’s future, convince partners it includes a profitable role for the channel, and assure them she’ll stay the course longer than a few months.

As for what that vision may be, Whitman will have a few to chose from. At my last HP partner conference two years (and as many CEOs) ago, Mark Hurd saw HP adding value by providing every piece of an integrated IT value chain, from data centre to endpoint. It was buttressed with the mid-conference blockbuster acquisition of Palm and its WebOS mobile operating system.

Months later, that vision was blown-up when Apotheker replaced the ousted Hurd and, true to his roots as a former SAP executive, shifted HP’s focus to software. His vision was to make HP a lot more like IBM: dump the PC business like IBM did when it sold its own to Lenovo, drop the tablet and mobility business after WebOS failed to take off, and focus on the more lucrative software, services and infrastructure business.

Of course, after the decision to dump the PC business was met with confusion and opposition, Apotheker himself was shown the door and, after initially expressing support for his direction, Whitman decided to keep the personal systems group. Just what her long term plan is for HP remains to be seen, though.

Is the IBM model the right one for HP? Not necessarily. Getting into higher margin software and services business, as IBM has, is absolutely the right direction for HP. But HP’s dominance in the PC market is a key differentiator that gives HP name recognition in the marketplace, which is increasingly important in a bring your own device world.

If there’s one IBM trait that Whitman and HP should seek to emulate though, it’s the same one IBM’s partners will be looking to see from Rommety: consistency. While Big Blue has been agile enough to adapt to market trends — you don’t last 100 years in this business if you’re not — consistency of strategy, messaging and execution that has made IBM the powerhouse it is today.

As HP partners prepare to meet their third CEO in two years, a little IBM-style consistency would go over well.

Follow Jeff Jedras on Twitter: @JeffJedrasCDN.

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