This is a blog post from Friday, 25 July 2008 that I published on my old Process Guy blog. In it I write about how attempting to change the direction of an organisation like the Liberal Democrats is not and easy or speedy task. A point that, on more than one issue, is very relevant again today.
On the 26th May 1995 Bill Gates issued a memo to Microsoft executives. This memo, which has become famous as the “Internet Tidal Wave” memo, set out how this hugely successful company had made a major mistake. This mistake was the failure to recognise how important the Internet was. The memo went on to identified Netscape, with their Netscape Navigator web browser, as a major competitor to Microsoft. With this memo Gates ordered Microsoft to make a fundamental change in its strategic direction. From then on Microsoft was to assign the Internet the “highest level of importance”.
As a result of this memo huge changes swept across the company. New teams were set up. New projects were launched. Million dollar budgets were realigned. New people were hired and existing jobs redefined. Within months new online services were launched and the scene was set for one of the biggest corporate battles of recent history as Microsoft set out to dominate the Internet as it had the OS market.
In summary, Gates had recognised that Microsoft’s existing strategy, because of changing circumstances, was no longer the right one. A new strategy was needed. Using the huge resources at his disposal he developed and enacted that new strategy in a remarkably short time.
The Liberal Democrats face changing circumstances as the Labour Government collapses and the Conservatives gain momentum. Our previous strategy of targeting mainly Conservative seats is no longer the right one. A new strategy is needed. The Liberal Democrat equivalent of Bill Gates (is that Nick Clegg or Chris Rennard?) needs to issue a memo.
That is the argument that many people within the Lib Dems have been making, on blogs and elsewhere, and in essence I believe that they are right. This post has been inspired by PoliticalBetting.com’s discussion of a post by the Norfolk Blogger, Nich Starling, making just such a case. We do need to change our strategy. In fact it appears to me, although it may not to others, that we are changing our strategy. But I want to caution those who are making the case for a change in strategic direction to remember a simple and rather obvious truth. The Liberal Democrats are not Microsoft!
In these sorts of discussions people often tend to forget to take into consideration the nature of the Liberal Democrats. In comparison to the tasks we have and our importance within the life of the nation we are a very poorly resourced organisation. We are a largely voluntary organisation. We are a multi layered and multifaceted organisation. And, as I have blogged about before, we are an organisation with considerable structural weaknesses.
The process of developing and implementing a change of strategic direction within the Liberal Democrats is not going to be particularly easy or speedy one. If someone does issue a ‘memo’ there is no guarantee that it will be read by the right people, or by anyone at all. Even if the need for change is recognised at the top, or indeed at other levels throughout the Party, which I think it is, implementing it will take time. If you excuse me while I crowbar together two famous phrases; it is a bit like turning a supertanker powered by herds of cats. We do not have the culture or the resources of Microsoft. We cannot turn on a dime.
However, while the inability of the Party to respond and change direction quickly may be frustrating, it does have an important benefit. While Microsoft may have been able to switch to putting the Internet at the heart of its business at considerable speed there are some serious questions about how successful the implementation of that strategy has been. Forced as the Liberal Democrats are to make changes in strategic direction at a more measured pace we at least have more of an opportunity to make sure we get it right.
Note: I have today discovered that the full Internet Tidal Wave memo is available online.