CEO Memo Makes ‘Productivity’ the New Mantra at Microsoft

Photograph by Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Satya Nadella is now officially a Microsoft CEO, for he has penned a vision memo.

Like Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer before him, Nadella has turned to e-mail to spell out his designs for the company. Ballmer’s most recent treatise had explained how Microsoft was transitioning from being a maker of software to a devices and services company. Nadella, in his 3,000-word opus, informed the Microsoft troops on Thursday that the devices and services era has officially come to an end and been replaced by the productivity and platform period. As he put it, “At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.”

I had the pleasure of breaking bread with Nadella not long after he became chief executive officer. During our chat, he touched on this very idea. Microsoft, Apple, Google, and have many overlapping services, and it’s crucial for Microsoft to understand what its distinct spin on the digital future is, he said. Beyond that, it’s crucial for Microsoft to understand what its identity is, what it excels at more than any of these companies. Nadella had already settled on productivity as that key attribute and has now taken a crack at outlining a complete vision around that theme.

From Nadella’s memo:

“We will reinvent productivity for people who are swimming in a growing sea of devices, apps, data and social networks. We will build the solutions that address the productivity needs of groups and entire organizations as well as individuals by putting them at the center of their computing experiences. We will shift the meaning of productivity beyond solely producing something to include empowering people with new insights. We will build tools to be more predictive, personal and helpful. We will enable organizations to move from automated business processes to intelligent business processes. Every experience Microsoft builds will understand the rich context of an individual at work and in life to help them organize and accomplish things with ease.”

Picking “productivity” as Microsoft’s rallying cry is anything but radical. Most of Microsoft’s best-known products, after all, are productivity applications such as Word and Excel, and the company is clearly thought of as a business-software maker.

Still, there’s a bit of daring in Nadella’s strategy. The story of technology over the past five years has been dominated by consumers and apps and services focused on entertainment. People have picked the computing devices and software they like to use at home and then brought them into the office and forced their companies to adapt or at least try to adapt. The productivity mantra doesn’t go completely against this trend. Dropbox, for example, has a consumer look and feel, is pleasant to use, and makes people more productive. But chanting “productivity, productivity, productivity” certainly sounds more corporate than consumer.

If Microsoft wants to play in both the corporate and consumer world with productivity as its focus, it will need to deliver some products that live up to the rhetoric. It will need to actually make peoples’ lives operate more smoothly and give us back some of our free time. That will be far from easy.

To me, the most important part of Nadella’s memo came near the end, where he started detailing more of his expectations for employees and intellectualism. He made it clear that Microsoft has not been moving fast enough, its engineering has not been tight enough, and it has not been delighting consumers enough.

“Every team across Microsoft must find ways to simplify and move faster, more efficiently,” he writes. “Culture change means we will do things differently. Often people think that means everyone other than them. In reality, it means all of us taking a new approach and working together to make Microsoft better.”

Microsoft does a lot of things well but not nearly enough things spectacularly. This is the first time we’ve seen a high-level Microsoft executive address this problem head-on and call for a major change in the corporate culture.

Like many Microsoft memos, this call to action could end up just resulting in more of the same. But, if for no other reason than to keep Google and Apple honest, here’s hoping the company responds to Nadella’s pleas. And, if nothing else, at least we got some poetry along the way.

As Nadella writes: “Rainer Maria Rilke’s words say it best: ‘The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.’”

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