Social networking could have saved Kodak?

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The recent past has witnessed a level of hyper-communication in most of the fields with different ideas flowing through, thanks to social networking. We know that there are benefits of two way or multi-way communications where an idea, strategy, thought could be looked from various angles to either build it or sometimes bury it! Whilst crowd-sourcing is a step in the right direction, is it enough? Let’s step back in time – 1970’s and look at a particular company and the importance of culture in addition to communication.

Let’s look at what happened to Kodak or more importantly what did not happen inside Kodak. When Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer who invented the first digital camera in 1975 and shared his idea with Kodak management, their response to his invention was

‘But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it’.

So did the management fail to see the new trend or the thought of cannibalizing their revenue streams blinded them – perhaps both.

For the next 3 decades, the management were in denial about the emergence of this digital trend. While the founder of Kodak, George Foreman managed to embrace a new trend in the right time twice (once when he turned down profitable dry-plate business to move to film and then when he invested in color film even when their black and white business was doing well), the successive CEO’s managed to stay on the same old trend and failed consistently. The next failure, in 1996, was its $500Mn project Advantix Preview film and camera system (this was 10 years after developing its first mega pixel camera). The Advantix preview would allow the users to preview their shots and select the number of picture prints required and this was possible because it was a digital camera. The major cause for failure was the introduction of films into a digital camera just because Kodak was in that business!! Would you really buy a digital camera and still pay for film and prints? So what’s the root cause – Management stopped ‘listening’ thereby didn’t see the impact of the chinks in their armor then went on to refuse embracing the new trend, even worse,  they spent millions of dollars on research to force fit an old trend (films) onto a new trend (digital) using Advantix preview. If Kodak had a two or multi-way communication mechanism ( like social networking today)set-up in 1970’s, 1980’s and marketing-employee relations and other stakeholders picked up on the pro and anti ‘digital trend’ views, and made a futurist decision perhaps Kodak would be bustling with growth today

To look at the issue, let’s draw an analogy between a company and a person. Companies tend to behave like people; in addition to other qualities successful companies and people tend to have a right balance between conviction and self-awareness. For an organisation to start a journey of creating this balance, the following 3 aspects are critical

1/ Multi- way communication (social networking is just one platform) with all stakeholders (customers, employees, prospects, analysts, investors.) can be very helpful provided companies actively listen more and say less.

2/ Marketing/Employee relations to work 2 in a box to understand employees’ views on company’s products, services, new trends, challenges in addition to traditional employee relations work.

3/ Management/Leadership culture that is keen to listen to the findings of Marketing and other departments (after carrying out point 1 & 2).  Conviction and Self-awareness need to go hand-in hand. Management with too much conviction and very little self-awareness will lead to a Kodak moment, too much self-awareness and very little conviction is a non-starter.

Back to the question, social networking could have saved Kodak?  Maybe, it would have atleast created more awareness or noise around embracing the new digital trend which would have received some more attention and over time the management culture could have become a bit more self-aware. Social networking can help with awareness; adoption has to come from within where culture also plays a role. More so now than ever, for a company with competency and resources to be successful, management needs to get their employees behind their strategy and drive the company forward. This does not mean building a strategy in isolation and hard selling to the employees and customers to get their support or this does not mean trying to find a democratic strategy – this means running programs to socialize ideas and to  listen to the views, solutions that emerge and/or to listen and pick up new ideas and monetize them.

Would be keen to listen to your views and experience on this topic!

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About Ramesh Ramakrishnan
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