Hewlett-Packard, Mark Hurd and the butterfly effect

Part of chaos theory, the butterfly effect suggests a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences at a later state. The common example: a butterfly flaps its wings in Japan, and a hurricane develops in the United States. Put another way: the smallest of events can have large and unintended consequences.

I thought of the butterfly effect (also a regrettable Ashton Kutcher movie) as a hurricane began to swirl around Hewlett-Packard last month, with webOS shuttered and the venerable personal systems group (PSG) set to be either spun-off or sold-off. And I had to wonder: would this hurricane be swirling through HP now if marketing consultant Jodie Fisher had never been hired by the company for contract work?

When I attended HP’s partner conference in April of 2010, Mark Hurd was firmly in charge as CEO and he had a clear vision: differentiate offering every piece of the IT value-chain — from the data centre to the endpoint – and add value around services. He saw massive untapped potential for PSG. And it was during that conference that HP announced it was buying Palm, and its highly-touted webOS, for US$1.2 billion to form the foundation of its mobility and tablet strategy.

But then, four months later, Hurd resigned from HP following an investigation into claims that he sexually harassed a former contractor to the company: Fisher. It was determined he didn’t violate HP’s sexual harassment policy but he did violate HP’s standards of business conduct.

Hurd joins Oracle, former SAP AG executive Léo Apotheker takes his place at HP with a promised new focus on software and services and, a year later, the hurricane hits. Goodbye webOS, and (maybe) see you later, PSG. If Fisher had never been hired on that contract, where might we be today? We can only speculate, of course. But Hurd would probably still be CEO, and it’s hard to see him doing a complete 180 degree turn in strategy in just one year.

On the smallest of events history can turn, and now HP partners are waiting for clarity as rivals such as Dell and Acer prepare to go poaching.

I’m not sure, though, that even chaos theory can explain why you’d announce that you may decide to sell off an asset and tell the world you’ve lost interest in it without a plan or a buyer in place. Kind of makes it hard to get full value. But then for some things, science holds no answers.

Follow Jeff Jedras on Twitter: @JeffJedrasCDN.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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