The Dutiful No. 2

A couple of days before I left for Las Vegas to attend last weeks HP Technology Forum, I was at the gym making small talk about Hewlett-Packard with a guy whos a regular at the gym and who works for HPs storage business. Just out of curiosity, I asked what he thought of Ann Livermore, executive vice president of HPs technology solutions group, because I was slated to interview her at the conference.

His response surprised me. He groaned and said something about it being a prudent career move for him to withhold his comments. I let it go, but a few moments later, he brought it up again.

She came from the services side, right? he asked.

Right, I responded.

Thats why I had the reaction I did, he said, and he went on to express his frustration and disappointment with HPs services performance. If thats at all attributable to Livermore, he reasoned, it was difficult to give her much of a thumbs-up.

I was very much aware of the concerns about the quality of HPs services and support that have arisen as those operations have increasingly shifted offshore. Ive received enough letters and read enough online comments from disenchanted customers, partners and even employees to know that theres a serious issue here. So it headed my list of topics todiscuss with Livermore when I interviewed her last Monday.

Citing examples of what appears to be the primary concern that HPs offshore support technicians lack the expertise needed for the job and arent getting the training they need to change that I asked Livermore for her response. She launched into the standard spiel about how customer satisfaction is at the heart of everything HP does.

What I feel very strongly about is when we get feedback from partners or customers that critique us in any way, weve got to act really fast to get to the source of it and figure out whether theres a systemic problem or a problem with the performance of an individual, she said. Either way, we have to address it.

Have you found a systemic problem? I asked.

No, she responded. And she picked up where she left off with the customer satisfaction spiel.

Having a high regard for Livermore like I do, I was disappointed with her response. Of course theres a systemic problem. So its either the case that Livermore is in denial and doesnt recognize the problem, or shes toeing a company line that sees downplaying the problem as the optimal strategy.

When you consider Livermores reputation as a brilliant, influential businesswoman (in 2006, she ranked 14th on Fortunes list of the 50 Most Powerful Women, and 19th on Forbes list of the 100 Most Powerful Women), its hard to fathom that she would ever allow herself to slip into denial mode. And when you consider that she has an equally strong reputation as the consummate team player (shes remained the dutiful No. 2 despite having had the CEO nod withheld twice since Lew Platt stepped down in 1999), it isnt surprising that she would feel compelled to support the game plan thats been drawn, explicitly or implicitly, by CEO Mark Hurd. Thats what a dutiful No. 2 does.

But its not the station that someone of Ann Livermores caliber should have. When I asked her what the odds are that she will have served as a CEO before she retires, she gave me her standard response: I dont have a career ambition that I have to be CEO to have felt satisfied with what I achieve.

Maybe not. But this industry would be better served if she did.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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