Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The New Normal: Great Opportunities in a Time of Great Risk by Roger McNamee


Rating: (Mildly Recommended)




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Fans of Fast Company will find the same tone and feel on the pages of Roger McNamee’s new book, The New Normal: Great Opportunities in a Time of Great Risk. McNamee pours out definitive statements, but it’s not clear where they come from, and what basis has led McNamee to his convictions. There’s nothing deep in The New Normal, and reading it is akin to snacking on tidbits rather than enjoying a nutritious, balanced meal.


Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, “Business: The Courage to Act,” pp. 15-22:


The world of business is emerging from a monster hangover, the kind that can be cured only by time and rest.

The mania of the late 1990s persuaded businesses—as well as governments and people in general—of the existence of a New Economy, complete with its own set of rules. Remember the New Economy? The business world temporarily rejected sound princi­ples that had governed it for nearly a century in favor of a make-it-up-as-you-go-along strategy. Even the largest companies drank the Kool-Aid of the New Economy. But the biggest impact occurred in the world of start-ups, where an entire generation of entrepreneurs committed themselves to business plans that had only the smallest chance of success. Today, many of them wish they had been com­mitted, period.

For business, the most obvious manifestation of the New Normal is a return to traditional metrics: revenues, profits, and cash flow. After five years when companies could simply invent operating metrics—”eyeballs,” page views, and the like—businesses are being held accountable for old-fashioned results. It is painful for some, but progress for all. It will put us on firmer footing.

While the New Economy turned out to be an illusion, its con­sequences were as real as an earthquake, and we are still living with the wreckage. The economy continues to struggle with excess capac­ity produced by six years of over-the-top capital spending. Execu­tives resize and restructure their businesses without a clear picture of the true level of business activity. Investors continue to harbor unrealistic expectations.

Time and rest have done their best. Now it’s time to move on— and to make the most of the post-post-mania environment. And there’s a lot of opportunity out there. But here’s a glitch: because no one is quite certain what to expect, people are sticking to what has worked most recently for them. During the downturn, companies got accustomed to cutting their capital expenditures, particularly their technology capital expenditures. In a lousy economy, cost cutting is very effective. The longer the downturn, the bigger the payoff from cost cuts. If the downturn lasts long enough, and the recent one cer­tainly did, companies can even get away with not investing in their future. All they have to do is tell their investors that the environ­ment remains uncertain. . . and hope their competitors don’t invest.

The recent environment created a challenge for business. Still smarting from the downturn, CEOs wanted to delay capital spend­ing and expense growth as long as they could. They could clearly see that the economy had passed bottom but were reluctant to aban­don the cost-cutting policies that worked during the downturn. The perceived risk of making the wrong decision was greater than the perceived risk of doing nothing.

Compounding the situation: businesses are still adapting to the flurry of regulatory reform in securities and corporate governance. Securities and governance regulations play an important role in pro­tecting society from the tendency of both individuals and organiza­tions to operate in their own short-term self-interest. But reform always has unintended consequences. Don’t get me wrong. I think the intent of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 is very sound. The law, which is aimed at increasing the independence of boards of di­rectors, would work better if it did not impose arbitrarily expensive rules on all companies irrespective of size, but these imperfections can and should be addressed. And Eliot Spitzer is one of my heroes. I think he’s doing a great job of restoring some integrity to securities-law enforcement, and he may actually prompt the SEC to start do­ing the job for which it was created. But there is an unintended consequence of all this reform: it gives managements and boards of directors a built-in excuse to avoid creative and aggressive decision-making. The reflexive response to the new regulations is to do noth­ing. Directors don’t want to do anything that increases their liability.

After the nonsense of the late 1990s, you might question whether the words creative and aggressive should be used in the same para­graph as the word corporation. The important thing is to give people freedom. Freedom for management to do what it thinks is best for the company, shareholders, and employees. Freedom for sharehold­ers to know what is really going on, to have a voice, and to sell shares if they don’t like what they see. Freedom for customers to get the best products at the best prices.

Fortunately, the current corporate holding pattern won’t last forever. We’ve got history on our side. Typically, cycles of outrageous behavior are followed by waves of regulation that moderate behav­ior. When mania turns to bust, it takes a long time for people to get over the consequences—and even longer for them to get courageous again. In general, uncertainty and regulatory reform sustain con­servative behavior longer than is good for our economy. At some point, however, a management team always gets bold. It invests in its business. The investment pays off. Competitors are forced to re­spond. Then other companies read about it and follow suit. Busi­nesses start cranking again. That is the beauty of free markets.

In the New Normal, there are astonishing business opportunities, but they typically don’t look like yesterday’s opportunities. Neither big businesses nor IPOs will get all the glory. Today, size matters less than at any time in the past fifty years. Thanks to technology, even small businesses can have a global footprint if they leverage the Internet and available tools that are dropping in price even as capabilities increase. Large companies still have lots of opportunity. They can win when it comes to mass customization and mass dis­tribution. But in many parts of the economy, where customization is more important than mass, smaller companies and individuals have a shot at success simply because they can be more focused. It’s hard for any company to be good at a hundred different domains at the same time. It’s easy for a hundred small companies to be good at one domain each.

Flexibility has replaced scale as the key ingredient for corporate success in uncertain times. All else being equal, most companies would rather be large than small, but nearly everyone has come to appreciate the benefits of flexibility. Since the Internet bust, corpo­rations have been focused on making do with fewer people. They are struggling to develop the ability to grow or shrink according to market conditions. This seismic shift opens up enormous opportu­nities for start-ups to serve the needs of large companies—to deliver key business processes that enable large companies to respond to the market without having extra employees during lean times. With productivity and flexibility as the most sought-after capabilities, companies will continue to outsource key business processes to third parties, specialist firms that will come in every conceivable size and structure. This is a monster opportunity pounding on the door.

Sure, large companies still have huge advantages, but those ad­vantages have value only in combination with a good business model. As the playing field becomes more level, business models grow in importance. There’s simply no room in the economy for compa­nies without a solid one.

To see the importance of business models, consider the exam­ples of Hewlett-Packard and Dell. In 2002, H-P acquired Compaq to create the world’s largest vendor of PCs, printers, and other im­portant technology products. The merged company remained the number one vendor of PCs for roughly one fiscal quarter. It couldn’t hold that position because its business model, which depends on a hybrid of retail and direct-sales channels, could not keep pace with Dell’s. To sell through dealer channels, H-P must bear the enormous expense of building products months in advance, whereas Dell builds most of its products in response to customer orders. Dell’s cost savings completely offset H-P’s temporary scale advantage. It took Dell only a matter of months to regain the number one position.

Companies with winning business models will sail confidently into the New Normal. Google, which puts unobtrusive, relevant ads in front of people while they search the Web, charges advertisers only for ads that generate sales leads. Pay-for-performance advertising is the hottest thing on Madison Avenue, and it started on the Web.

Lots of business models that worked really well in the 1990s need a facelift for the New Normal. Successful companies will adapt their business model to the times. In an environment where PC in­dustry revenues are growing painfully slowly, Microsoft needs to be creative to sustain its growth. The subscription business model is an answer. Microsoft now encourages customers to view software as a subscription purchase. Increasing numbers of customers have made Microsoft software a line item in their annual budget.

Another example is EMC, the Massachusetts-based leader in storage management systems, which saw its revenue collapse during the bust. EMC was quick to realize that the game was up. It could no longer prosper selling huge arrays of very expensive disk drives. Embracing the inevitable, EMC changed its business model. It cut prices dramatically on storage systems and started buying enterprise software products that could be sold to its high-end customer base. The company now sells a wide range of enterprise software to com­plement its storage solutions. It is too early to know if the acquisi­tions will pan out, but win, lose, or draw, EMC is better off. EMC understood that the risk of dramatic change was actually quite ac­ceptable in comparison to the inevitable disaster that would have come from standing still. The company bought itself some time, and with time comes opportunity.

EMC is one of a handful of companies that have taken bold ac­tion in the early days of the New Normal. Apple Computer is an­other. Apple has made a big bet on consumer electronics, a bet that is paying off so far. Again, it’s no guarantee of future success, but that’s not the point. The world has changed, and Apple has changed with it.

There are countless companies facing questions similar to those faced by EMC and Apple. Among them are Lucent, a leading vendor of technology for voice and data communications, and Sun Micro­systems, the leading vendor of computer systems based on the Unix operating system. Both Lucent and Sun were high fliers in the 1 990s. Both have come upon hard times. Lucent has been all but forced to take aggressive action. Thanks to a huge cash reserve, Sun does not feel the same sense of urgency. As a result, Sun is still trying to decide if aggressive action is called for and, if so, what form it should take. Meanwhile, such vendors as Dell and IBM are taking market share from Sun. Industry analysts and pundits have been quick to write off Lucent and Sun, but the final chapter on these companies has not been written. I hope they move aggressively to reinvent themselves. But time is of the essence. Business models cannot re­main under construction for long.

Just as corporations will be increasingly dependent on strong business models, they’ll also need to be more thoughtful in how they use technology. The encouraging news for large enterprises is that start-ups are no longer a threat in most industries. Freed from the pressure to deploy flaky Internet technology to impress investors who were dazzled by start-ups, large companies now can concen­trate on using really good Internet technology to gain sustainable competitive advantage.

For corporations, making the most of technology in the New Normal means taking a decentralized approach. Technology is no longer so mysterious that it requires a priesthood of IT profession­als to make all the decisions. Instead, enterprises in every sector of the economy simply need to understand how technology affects their particular business and what they can do to take advantage of it. This requires effort at all levels of the organization. Top manage­ment needs to be involved in technology strategy, and the whole company needs to take responsibility for making it work. Manage­ment needs to delegate more and more of the specification and de­ployment responsibility to the operating folks who will actually use the stuff. This will give IT a new and more valuable role: partner­ing with operating people to make the business work better. When this happens, technology becomes more like other mature cate­gories of capital expenditure, such as forklifts and office furniture, and it drives value creation.

Meanwhile, another new trend will continue in the New Nor­mal: cycle times are shrinking. The trip from start-up to success is faster than ever. The same goes for the trip from success to failure. One of the biggest lessons of the 1990s is that it’s in everyone’s in­terest to identify success or failure as quickly as possible. Customers and investors are less patient than ever. As you can imagine, there is both good and bad in this. On the one hand, it creates tremen­dous pressure to deliver positive results quickly. On the other hand, there are new market opportunities—including the market for tools and services to help businesses understand faster than they could before what works and what doesn’t.

So the New Normal combines a return to traditional business metrics—sales, profits, and cash flow—with new rules. The early lessons are clear: technology enables businesses to prosper with fewer employees. Flexibility is key to prospering in uncertain times. And globalization creates opportunities for small companies, as well as large ones.

As always, delay is still a strategy. But it’s a really, really bad one.


There are worse ways to spend time than reading The New Normal, and readers may come away with a useful thought or two. McNamee’s broad reach and clear statements may generate agreement or dissent, and what readers decide to do differently as a result of reading this book will be the result of the readers’ own reflection, not clear suggestions from the author.


Steve Hopkins, April 23, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2005 issue of Executive Times


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