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Codifying asymmetry: How Apple became Jobsian

Any student of organizational theory must struggle with the question of how to assign weight to the influence of the leadership of a company. In the case of Apple, the question is:

Is Jobs is the embodiment of Apple or is Apple already Jobsian, imbued with his ethos?

John Gruber summed up (start at 8:00 min) the “Apple is Jobsian” argument by saying that Apple is Steve Jobs’ greatest creation and that he has been working on crafting the company as much as he has been crafting products. The result being that it’s well designed for sustainable longevity.

The arguments for “Jobs is Apple” are mostly rooted in anecdotes of a supreme leader that is indispensable to every decision and detail. There are also ample examples from history of companies who foundered after the departure of founders (Apple itself is notably cited.)

But beside armchair quarterbacking, what evidence is there that Apple is being engineered to operate independent of its founder? Unfortunately there is almost no organizational analysis for Apple. Unlike many of its contemporaries, there aren’t org charts or tell-all accounts on life in Cupertino. There are no anonymous “mini-aapl” blogs or tales from the disgruntled.

For this reason, a recent quote about the mysterious “Apple University” in Fortune caught my eye.

First a brief review of what was known.

Apple University was first mentioned in 2008 when Joel Podolny was hired from running Yale Management School to join Apple in creating this new “University”. I remember at the time thinking what such a thing might be. To leave the top job in one of the top business schools to join Apple must require some powerful incentives. I envisioned Apple entering into a far more ambitious iTunes project where they could be offering degree programs or teaching resources through the familiar store front.

But nothing was heard about Apple University again. Until yesterday.

According to the article in Fortune and some additional details from another source, Joel Podolny has been building an understanding of how Apple is run. He’s then been asked to codify this understanding into a curriculum that can be taught to Apple employees.

The idea that Apple is trying to capture its institutional processes and knowledge is very compelling. Few companies have self-knowledge. Fewer still try to codify it and teach it to new generations of leaders (Disney, McDonalds and Toyota have in-house training programs but they are mostly aimed at new hires).

For those who don’t bother, the consequences are a more rapid descent into disruption. I’ve experienced the consequences of the failure to remember decision processes. Knowledge about decisions disappears once the decision maker moves on, leaving a new generation to figure out the causes of success (and failure) all over again.

The evidence of the forgetting of history abounds at companies like Sony and Microsoft which seem to be behaving exactly opposite to how they once did. Sony, once a serial disruptor, turned into a sustainer. Microsoft who pioneered software as a business, cannot find new business models for software.

Apple’s decisions and outcomes are the stuff of legend. They famously act asymmetrically to what is “conventional wisdom”. Wisdom imparted supposedly through business schools but systematically contradicted by Apple’s principles:

  • Accountability without control
  • Lack of “P&L responsibility” for top management
  • Saying no to “better things”
  • Building products before markets are identified
  • Functional vs. hierarchical or divisional organzation
  • A disregard for polite consensus

So if this type of decision process is not codified, how is it going to persevere when convention dictates otherwise?

If the article is correct and there is an effort under way to codify and teach new generations “the Apple way” then the case for Apple being Jobsian grows a lot stronger.