Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Burning the ships

If you're looking for a book that's light enough in terms of tone and content to read on a long flight, yet rich enough in insights for you not to feeel guilty about leaving all that pressing work untouched while you finish it, then Marshall Phelps and David Kline's Burning the Ships: Intellectual Property and the Transformation of Microsoft is probably the book you're looking for. It never verges on the dull or the irrelevant, but nor does it give away any secrets: the main message is that, so far as designing and executing models for the successful exploitation of intellectual property rights is concerned, (i) attitude is more important than policy; (ii) there is a disjunction between the past -- where we acquire our experience -- and the future, where we deploy it; (iii) sharing and caring can produce better all-round benefits than erecting 'keep-off-the-grass' signs around one's own IP; and (iv) if you have already succeeded on the big stage, your boss is more likely to trust you to gamble the crown jewels than if you haven't.

That seems to this review to be that the wily authors say. but what does the Wiley publisher say?

"At the start of this decade, Microsoft was on the defensive—beset on all sides by anti-trust suits and costly litigation, and viewed by many in the technology industry as a monopolist and market bully. How was it going to survive and succeed in the emerging new era of "open innovation," where collaboration and cooperation between firms, rather than market conquest, would be the keystones of success?
This was the challenge facing Microsoft founder and Chairman Bill Gates. But "like Cortez burning his ships at the shores of the New World," Gates decided to embrace the change that was needed. He recruited Marshall Phelps—the legendary "godfather" of intellectual property who had turned IBM’s IP portfolio into a $2 billion-a-year gold mine—out of retirement and into the cauldron of controversy that was Microsoft. Only this time Phelps’ mission was infinitely more challenging than simply making money from IP. It was to help reform Microsoft’s "man the barricades" culture, encourage the company to abandon its fortress mentality around its technology and share it with others for mutual benefit, and use intellectual property not as a weapon of competitive warfare but as a bridge to collaboration with other firms instead.

Here, for the first time (and 500 collaboration deals later), is the inside story of what one analyst has called "the biggest change Microsoft has undergone since it became a multinational company."

In this book, authors Marshall Phelps and David Kline take the reader inside the dramatic struggle within Microsoft to find a new direction. They offer an extraordinary behind-the-scenes view of the high-level deliberations of the company’s senior-most executives, the internal debates and conflicts among executives and rank-and-file employees alike over the company’s new collaborative direction, and the company’s controversial top-secret partnership building efforts with major open source companies and others around the world. Nothing was held back from this book save for information specifically prohibited from disclosure by confidentiality agreements that Microsoft signed with other companies. Indeed, the degree of access to Microsoft’s inner workings granted to the authors—and the honest self-criticism offered by Microsoft leaders and employees alike—was unprecedented in the company’s 34-year history.

There are lessons in this book for executives in every industry—most especially on the role that intellectual property can play in liberating previously untapped value in a company and opening up powerful new business opportunities in today’s era of "open innovation." Here is a powerful inside account of the dawn of a new era at what is arguably the most powerful technology company on earth".
This web-blurb is probably a good reflection of the style of the book as well as its content. It is unashamedly didactic and justifiably proud, but with the occasional leavening of humility and self-deprecation to prevent the reader loathing Phelps for his success. It is carefully crafted to deliver a persistently upbeat note, leading the reader to recognise that he or she too can succeed in turning around a company the size of Microsoft by tugging at the reins of its IP. I enjoyed it enough to devour it all at a single sitting, but doubt I shall either want or need to repeat the process.

Bibliographic detail: hardback, xxii (I can't imagine that the Latin numbered pages at the beginning were the authors' choice) + 186 pages. ISBN 978-0-470-43215-0. Price £19.99/€25. Book's webpage here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Self-aggrandizing puffery with a hard spin about how absolutely munificent Microsoft is that doesn't comport with reality. Easily skipped.