Microsoft Deserves A Bigger Purpose

Microsoft plans to fire 3–5,000 employees, primarily in sales and marketing. It’s a drop in the bucket (more than 120,000 people work there), but evidences a fundamental shift in its business.

For most of the company’s history, sales really meant taking orders from customers who didn’t know better (or had few to no alternatives). It ran an effective monopoly thanks to Windows OS, which it dutifully and regularly updated in order to collect successive rounds of income.

Sales amounted to visiting restaurants to pick up the latest protection check.

This racket allowed it to tolerate its marketing department’s inability to sell its forays into peripherals (like Zune), or successfully position its game platform; Xbox succeeded with gamers despite Microsoft’s marketing, not because of it, and the company has never received credit or value for its innovation.

Things were no better internally, according to reports. So when Satya Nadella took over in 2014, he inherited a company that fewer and fewer people wanted to buy from, or work for.

The news of layoffs evidences his progress in fixing it; Microsoft plans to reorganize its sales team to actually sell to meet customers’ needs. Proof of this new focus is its latest iteration of Azure, which has been cited in media stories as the engine for going after smaller, emergent companies (instead of relying on renewals from big customers).

A version even runs on, gasp!, Linux.

Microsoft is also doing some cool experimental things, like developing a plan to use TV stations to bring Internet access to remote locations. It’s partnering with most automakers on various aspects of autonomous vehicle development.

But it still needs a purpose.

According to its website, Microsoft’s mission is “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

In other words, “we want to keep our options open.”

The company probably paid communications experts a lot of money for something that could be used equally by a company that sold insurance, or made anti-itch cream.

So why does the world need Microsoft?

The answer isn’t on the web pages about its values, which describe its work in innovation, diversity and inclusion, and CSR, just like every other company does on their own websites. So nothing unique there.

It’s also not in CEO Nadella’s Twitter feed, which reads like a committee touting deeply researched and appropriately worded notices on business performance and good works.

There’s a long list of news announcements about the what that Microsoft brings to the market, ranging from software to hardware, along with stories about how it does it. But no amount of Outlooks and Surfaces adds up to standing for something.

It’s the stuff that marketers use to try and differentiate the company instead of the why, although it tends to read much like the stories coming from other companies (the business of staying in business can be pretty generic, if you think about the fundamentals).

“Storytelling” should be banned from its corporate communications strategy.

Articulating the why is harder work, because the company has to dare to aspire to something more than being anything to everyone.

Why is Microsoft uniquely capable of doing something? Why does that something need to happen? Why will its efforts have meaning for us? Why should we believe that it has the commitment and fortitude to achieve its goals?

Corporate purpose isn’t a story, it’s truth.

I don’t know the answer, though I’m pretty sure that the work underway at Microsoft deserves a bigger purpose than simply trying to survive, however smartly it’s accomplished.

If there isn’t a better one in the works, stay tuned for more layoffs, perhaps in the staff that should have been coming up with it.

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I’m president of Arcadia Communications Lab, a global collaborative solely focused on helping established businesses get value from communicating about innovation. You can follow me @jonathansalem