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My old friend Robert Jones of Wolff Olins recently wrote a blog asking whether the idea of “purpose” was becoming just another corporate buzzword (read his blog here). If he’s right (and I fear he might be) this doesn’t invalidate the value of thinking about purpose; only the intellectual laziness that commonly passes for thought in corporate life.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has a new purpose for his company. It will, he says, “reinvent productivity”.

Sadly you can see how this probably arose from some routine business thinking about how to do strategy and change. After Steve Ballmer’s departure the company has had a predictable identity crisis, trying to understand its relevance when the market seems to be moving away from the place Microsoft has dominated for the last twenty years (it’s true that Microsoft remains by far and away the dominant player in enterprise desktops, but its weakness in mobile can’t be a comfortable position).

Nadella needs to put his stamp on the business, which presumably explains why in the last few months no senior Microsoft manager has been able to speak in public without saying something about products that “delight our customers”. The target here seems to have been Apple, because “delight” is something that Apple customers typically feel more than Microsoft buyers. However the focus now seems to have shifted to Google, with the claim about productivity, and a secondary claim that Nadella’s “mobile first/cloud first” strategic mantra boils down to Microsoft creating “the OS of our lives”.

The trouble is that Google is already well on the way to occupying that space, to the point where questions are rightly being raised about its reaching into every aspect of our lives. Is it really such a desirable space to occupy? In profitabality, perhaps, but as a driving corporate purpose it looks questionable.

(Nadella seems to acknowledge the problem when he says that “ we will strike the right balance between using data to create intelligent, personal experiences, while maintaining security and privacy”, and I think there may be a real opportunity for Microsoft here, but he quickly loses that focus in the generality of the aspirations he goes on to articulate, and also, depressingly, uses the dreaded “passion” word along the way.)

Microsoft has more mature productivity tools than Google in its Office suite and is pushing them hard as cloud-based options. In the absence of any other information this is what Nadella seems to mean by “transforming productivity”, but that claim really has to mean a lot more than being able to open a spreadsheet on your phone with a voice command.

(Ironically too I’ve found the changes in Word in particular over the last seven years have made it less productive as a tool, and so have largely abandoned it.)

The productivity claim ticks one of the boxes in the corporate purpose check list: it does relate to something real in the business. The trouble is that in trying to scale up from the real to an idea that might be a bit more inspiring it loses its way. Or to put it another way, it seems to be making a claim on a bigger kind of purpose, but when you start to ask what it could mean, it’s actually a fairly banal commercial objective dressed up in pretentious language.

Nadella might not be talking simply about improving productivity. The word he uses is “reinventing”, but if this was serious you’d need to say a bit more from the outset. Why does productivity need reinventing, or transforming? Why is this going to be a good thing? Does it mean the same thing in India as it does in the US? There might be some interesting answers to these questions, and if Microsoft is prepared to use its power to push forward business or cultural thinking around these questions this might indeed be transformative for the company. But so far there’s no sign of this kind of thinking, and Nadella would have done better to have put some more changes in place that could have supported what hidden aspirations he might have. While it’s true that your corporate rhetoric needs to be aligned with the changes you might want to see, if you start with the rhetoric you risk presenting what might well be a good and distinctive idea as just more corporate blather.

Robert Jones in his blog notes the importance of purpose being real, and says (rightly I think) that if your real corporate purpose is to make money then that’s okay, and it’s better to have that honesty in the way you talk about yourself. Microsoft’s problem (and Nadella’s) is that while it might have been driven in the last twenty years by a version of the money-making purpose, that is, the desire to dominate its categories and markets in the computing world, it’s facing a different world in the future, and it seems that its old strengths may not help it redefine its place in that world. The company needs to change. It needs a sense of purpose that can guide its product development beyond the a hopeless game of catch up with Apple and Google.

There is as I noted above, some scope to do just that, to offer people the power of permanent connectivity, as well as intelligence about context, in a way that’s more transparent and controllable than Google can afford to do (because it needs to sell your data to advertisers). Microsoft may be in a good position to do this, but then it needs to be evangelising that position, and the business model that can underpin it.

If this is the purpose that Nadella has in mind, he needs to find much plainer ways of saying it. As it was, the more or less uniform response of the commentators to his corporate round robin was “just more of the same”. The truth might be more interesting, but Nadella hasn’t yet spoken that truth, and he needs to if this new sense of purpose is going to have any traction in the business. Describing that process as “rediscovering our soul” just put him on the wrong track from the outset.

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