Lessons on Blackberry’s transformation that we can learn from

Image : Blackberry curve

During the New Years holidays, I was reflecting on the major business stories from the past year and I figured there are lessons in Blackberry’s transformation we can all learn from.

A couple of weeks ago, the (former) technology-icon was in news when analysts began to focus on a steady, albeit slow turnaround.

Blackberry brought us the very first smartphones and introduced a generation of business users to secure, connected devices that they could use for voice and data communication anywhere-anytime. During its heyday, the keyboard enabled Blackberries were so ubiquitous and powerful — for their time — that they were nicknamed ‘crackberry.’

Like many in the tech industry, I’ve enjoyed a 360-degree relationship with Blackberry — the company and its devices. A few years ago, I was watching the ups-and-downs of Blackberry’s stock that began a gradual decline once smartphones from Apple, Samsung, and even Nokia took hold and large employers began transitioning away from its proprietary mobile platform.

About that time, the tech team at my company started implementing the BYOD roadmap, which meant pulling the plug on company-issued devices — primarily blackberries. Many business users, self included, had been die-hard blackberry fans and were loath to turn in our devices; but the writing on the wall was clear. In the previous decade, I had periodically upgraded blackberries and it was time to retire my last Blackberry — a nice Curve with a slide-out keyboard.

Time had marched on — voice and data calling was getting cheaper, and with the proliferation of smartphones, consumers had a lot of choice. Organizations were rightly deciding that they were no longer the custodians of mobile-devices, and employees didn’t value a company-issued phone as a perk.

Blackberry, a Tech-icon left for dead ?

The company is a classic B-school case study on technology incumbent being disrupted by agile and nimble upstarts. In the tech-world innovators enjoy an edge till fast-followers come along with better tweaks or better execution of the business model. Google didn’t invent the search-engine but became a verb by enhancing the search techniques and building a simple, easy to use interface. Same goes for Facebook that gained a critical mass of users when users began migrating from other social media platforms (remember Google’s orkut?)

Blackberry’s decline started as a slow-burn from 2010–11 though stories of its demise date back to the release of the first iPhones. For a long time, Blackberry had a lot going for it — it had a good stable of devices, a well defined hosting model targeted at corporate users, and an industry leading security and support model. In addition to enjoying a cult-like following among its core userbase — corporate users, the company had established strong relationships with carriers.

The transformation, and lessons for the rest of us

By 2014, the blackberry was left for the dead, but the board brought in a new CEO to help with a transformation. The past couple of years have seen it morph from a device to a ‘software and services’ company. Analysts watching the company have been optimistic ( FT link) “The financial progress was heralded as evidence that the decision to quit the smartphone market, and focus on software and services related to mobile products, is starting to pay off.”

A transformation of this sort — from a hardware and product manufacturer to a services firm is not a trivial exercise. Many software-service firms and outsourcing companies have tried the reverse, with limited success. The Redmond-tech-giant tried to get its arms around mobile-devices after acquiring and attempting to review Nokia — another former mobile hardware giant. The company finally threw in the towel, and Microsoft’s leaders recently admitted that “Windows Phone is dead” ( link)

Although one may or may-not agree on the extent of Blackberry’s transformation, the story highlights few lessons that tech folks can use in career planning too.

  • Knowing when to transform — In the tech-world some technologies and platforms start with a slow downward slide before a major consolidation or transformation comes along. After the Y2K fix, there was a decline in demand for mainframe skills. Likewise we saw a consolidation of ERP skills after platforms like BaaN, Peoplesoft and others got bought out or deprecated. Astute techies learn to keep an ear on the ground and transition out of technologies in the decline.
  • Switching technologies and platforms — Some professionals thrive by gaining incremental experiences across hardware and software technologies while others opt to deepen their skills in a platform (like .Net or SAP). Blackberry’s transformation shows that it may be hard, but not impossible to transition across platforms, especially when it is a matter of survival.
  • Moving across industries and business verticals — I have seen professionals switch across business verticals at large companies. Sometimes opportunities arise with business transformations while at times folks are forced to migrate when faced with business disruptions.

This mobile-to-software services story shows that regardless of the catalysts, a successful transition enables one to survive and thrive when faced with winds of change. This is true for companies as it is for individuals.

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Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on January 1, 2018.