Shane Robison retires as HP Chief Strategy and Technology Officer

Shane Robison will step down and retire as HP’s Chief Strategy and Technology Officer effective November 1. According to HP’s news release, “in an effort to drive strategy, research and development closer to the company’s businesses, it will not be replacing the role of chief strategy and technology officer.”

I worked for or with Shane in various capacities, including as a business group CTO, for eight years or so and had many opportunities to see how he acted as a broker within HP, knitting strategy across different business groups (all of whom had different needs) and having much of the responsibility for many of the companies purchased that HP has made since the Compaq merger. Indeed, Shane was one of the prime architects for that merger and worked closely with Carly Florina and Michael Cappellas to bring the two companies together. His ability to sit at the center of HP and act as an influencer across all the businesses led the Wall Street Journal to describe him as “the Switzerland of HP” in an article. I think this was a fair assessment.

Shane’s biggest impact at Compaq came from the cancellation of the Alpha chip, a decision that caused uproar at the time but has been proven right in the long term as HP focused on Intel and AMD industry standard processors instead of having to devote billions of dollars to compete with its own processor. He has also been criticized for maintaining HP’s overall spend on R&D at between $3.5 billion and $4billion since the merger even as HP’s revenues and profits grew. People pointed to the static R&D spend as a lower percentage of HP’s budget and wondered whether this marked a year-over-year reduction in the importance of R&D to the company. My experience was that while it’s true that HP kept budgets tight, there was a huge effort to ensure that the available money was spent effectively on projects that really delivered rather than headline research that sometimes didn’t. This approach, driven by Shane, was unpopular with technologists because it forced them to justify their work in a way that they hadn’t to before, but it did deliver additional profit to HP and helped to align technology direction with business strategy.

Other major initiatives launched by Shane included an increased focus on leveraging HP’s 30,000+ patent portfolio through licensing agreements that ended up as highly profitable deals and the creation of a common promotional structure for technologists across all HP businesses that allowed them to progress to very senior levels within the company. On the downside, HP has failed to establish any sort of credibility in cloud services despite talking about cloud technology for years. Despite more recent ventures such as MagCloud, HP's most successful cloud business remains Snapfish.

Shane worked with four HP CEOs. My reading of the situation is that the current CEO, Meg Whitman, has her own view on strategy and where HP must go and has attributed some of the blame to Robison for the fiasco around the August 18 announcement that HP was considering strategic alternatives for its Personal Systems Group (PSG) and the decision to buy Autonomy for some $12 billion (that deal closed on 3 October), not to mention the small matter of what happened around Palm, WebOS, and TouchPad. Even though she was on the HP board that approved these decisions, Whitman couldn’t do much about them at an executive level until she took control as CEO on 22 September. It’s been a short month since and my conclusion is that some of the blame for the direction that HP was heading in landed on the desk of its Chief Strategy and Technology Officer. Truly a case of "the buck lands here".

I’m not surprised that HP is not going to replace Shane in the role that he occupied within the executive suite simply because the job is mind-bendingly difficult  to do in a company that is so large and diverse. One approach would have been to split the responsibilities between a classic CTO focused on technology and another EVP who would look after corporate strategy including mergers and acquisitions. The argument Shane always made was that his role allowed him to bring strategy and technology together in a way that was critical for a massive technology company. Whitman seems to disagree and has pushed the CTO responsibilities down into the businesses (PCs, enterprise servers and storage, services, and printing and imaging). I assume that she’ll take on the strategy responsibility.

Everything comes to an end. I had my good and bad times with Shane Robison but learned an awful lot from him. I wish him well in his retirement and hope that he has fun in the future.

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