We in business school just love to use examples. It’s examples, stories and personal insights that make what we teach accessible, inspiring and sometimes game-changing. Along the way, many of these great stories get written up as cases, either formal ones like those created by the Harvard Business School, or less formal ones, such as those captured in articles, stories and books. There is just one problem with all this – the companies lauded as examples of greatness don’t keep it up. I’ve had this experience myself – no sooner do you think a practice or process in an organization is interesting and useful for others to learn about than some strategic disaster befalls them and repudiates all the other great stuff that the company did.
I find the current situation over at Nokia to be particularly poignant. As a recent FT article points out, Nokia was the poster child of high-tech strategic success throughout the 90’s and even into the early parts of this century. There must be hundreds of cases written about the company and how it manages everything from training to supply chains to design. Personally, I’ve worked with and enjoyed interacting with Nokia people for years. Unfortunately, the company missed a few strategic pivot points – lack of progress in the USA and being overtaken by the twin combination of Apple and Android in phones being two notable ones – and it is now facing the grim prospect of radical downsizing and a fight for its future. Will they pull it off? I hope so – I admire the company and think they are now making the tough decisions they probably should have made some time ago. Will their eventual success resurrect the value of those old case studies? Probably not.
Which brings me to an interesting point — just because a company isn’t perennially successful doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them. But it probably means that case studies, like other kinds of perishable goods, probably have to be issued with an expiration date.