An Open Letter to Stephen Elop

Mr. Elop, I’m sure by now you’ve read your fill of these opinion pieces.  Since your hiring by Nokia was announced, analyst after analyst has offered their view on how you can save the company from impending doom.  So I’m not going to regurgitate what’s already been tossed your way.

Instead, I’ll point out where they’re wrong. 

Corporate Culture

The most frequent solution I hear thrown out is that you need to start by changing Nokia’s corporate culture.  Well, I’m going to beg you to leave it alone for the most part.

I only worked for Nokia three years, but during that time I found myself in a working environment where thinkers, dreamers and solution-providers can prosper.  Where employees felt secure, empowered and emboldened enough to compose scathing criticisms about misguided executive direction, and be occasionally rewarded with real response– as when our bonuses didn’t match corporate results one Spring and the travesty was rectified that Fall after the outcry.

The problems Nokia has experienced the past few years aren’t a product of the rank-and-file culture.  They’re a consequence of stiff executive management that too often chose not to listen to the citizens of that culture.

So don’t tamper with the basic corporate culture.  Hell, don’t dismantle the frequently-criticized matrix structure, either.  Rather, focus your attention on the conservative firmament at the top.  The one that’s kept so many powerful innovations (like Maemo and Ovi) clamped down or underfunded.  Some people at the top have been exiting… but I’m not sure they’re the right ones.

Playing it Safe

I’ve seen some pundits claim Nokia has taken too many risks, made too many stupid moves.  They point to fiascos like the N-Gage (both hardware and service) as proof.

But I’m going to counter by declaring that Nokia hasn’t taken enough risks– at least, not internally.  Gambles don’t have to go public– Nokia needs to throw more resources behind developing forward-looking concepts AND thoroughly testing them prior to market launch.  That means a willingness to proactively assemble objective trial and focus groups and accept each and every harsh criticism brought forward.  The errors of the original N-Gage should never have made it to the market.  A ten-year-old could have caught the problems and saved the company time, money and embarrassment at the very least.  I’m still betting Nokia could have made the hardware N-Gage work, too, but didn’t make the proper effort.

One opinion I had long held about product development was reinforced by an outstanding course in logistics I took at Nokia (based on this book): that you allocate the majority of your operations to the proven bread-and-butter stuff, sure, but always provide for an entrepreneurial sandbox complete with a pipeline right to your ear.  Don’t be afraid to take risks in that sandbox.  Don’t be afraid to toss a novel toy out of it now and then and see how it fares.  Risk avoiders are guaranteed failures.

Catering to the United States

I’ve been a steady critic of Nokia’s approach to the US market, and definitely agree something needs changing.

But some pundits would like to see a degree of overture that would border on sickening.  A company with a solid identity, product offering and strategy should not have to kiss up to virtual monopolists.  But Nokia has not been that company for years.

Instead of ceding completely to carrier demands, I would rather Nokia go straight to US citizens, do a better job of investigating and assessing their interests and needs, and then go back to the carriers with a stronger corporate position that naturally includes the right portfolio of products.  Then supplement that with an all-stops-off advertising campaign like they’ve never done.  Even Microsoft does a better job than Nokia, so perhaps you can bring that in, Mr. Elop.

Wrapping Up

Many criticizing Nokia’s corporate culture really have no clue what it’s about.  I think they make assumptions based on traditional Finnish stoicism.  But even as an American there who once reported to Finnish bosses at Nokia, I felt more empowered to make a difference there than I had at any other company.  The only thing that gets in the way is a very thin layer of conservatism at the top… and we’re seeing an exodus there.

Ironically, that conservatism didn’t keep Nokia products and services from being released as permanent betas.  Nokia needs to commit more resources to entrepreneurial development followed by rigorous internal testing that includes some public engagement and feedback, in order to release fewer (due to better platforming) but more mature offerings.

Once that public feedback is processed into highly-compelling offerings, Nokia won’t have to approach US cellular service providers as a whipped puppy.  They could actually dictate certain terms, as Apple did with the iPhone line.  Nokia’s expertise in cameras needs to be played up more, for starters, especially in advertisements.

Unlike many American writers, I’m not ready to write Nokia’s epitaph yet.  But then, I’ve been on the inside and I know what the company can do.  So take a tip from Nike, Mr. Elop: Just Do It.

Randall Arnold


20 responses to “An Open Letter to Stephen Elop

  1. I’m crossin fingers! 🙂

  2. Catering to the United States

    In addition .. the best way to drop the demands of the carrier is to drop the carrier all together. Skype and Vonage are both good VoIP telephony providers. In metro areas where WiFi is readily abundant a phone that uses Skype or Vonage as it’s main service is a viable option.

    For a cell service you should take my advice and set your eyes on TracFone … and América Móvil. Recently Alltel was purchased by AT&T, but what I remember that really brought Alltel to the front of the line was their contract-less service. TracFone is your best bet, in my opinion.

    Then you stamp in the future of phones. The carrier can provide a discount to the phone expecting the user to need those prepaid minutes, the user wont be required to succumb to a vicious contract and can use Skype or Vonage, and you provide a phone experience that fits our data hungry, on the go lifestyle.

    To be honest .. I’d like to see Nokia buy TracFone. Also, fyi:

    • I agree… I would love to see SOME cell phone company make a complete end-run around the US carrier model and make it work. But I suspect it would take a consortium…

      • I’m hoping Nokia does that with LTE. If they can make their own LTE network in the United States in less than five years they can bypass the greedy carriers and deal with consumers direct.

        That. Would. Be. Awesome!

        Pandering to a US carrier is going to result in the carrier demanding certain features be removed, and as soon as that happens the phone is no longer a Nokia!

  3. Hardeep Singh

    I’d like to add.

    1. Android will be a huge mistake. Dont’ make it.
    2. N-gage as a service can become a huge success IF done correctly. There are already enough articles on the Internet on how to do it correctly.

    My 2 cents.

  4. How more spot on could you be? I hope Elop reads this and takes it all, seriouly, to heart. If not that epitaph will be written sooner than we think.

  5. I am sincerely hoping that Stephen Elop will understand the strength which Nokia has with Meego and its Meego/Maemo community. Communicate openly, discuss and full steam ahead with Meego! Symbian is fine, but should be definitively communicated to be for cheaper smart phones.

    I hope Stephen will NOT go for Windows Mobile or Android. Both would be the end of Nokia sooner or later.

    I am sure that Stephen is smart enough to listen and to understand before taking decisions.

    • Yeah, I really should have added a section on Android vs MeeGo. My oversight. Anyway thanks for your contribution.

      • You need not explain that to me, I’m just being the “What’s possible?” guy here.

        Sometimes it’s easier to forgo trying to explaining to the consumer and just give them what they want. In the case of handhelds, they are NOT thinking “mobile computer” in most cases and just want a phone.

        They already know Android and that is a strong point. If Nokia could take what they know and turn it all upside down with an awesome UI, it could be a powerful message.

    • I believe if a few IFs came true, WP7 or Android could be a good proving ground for Nokia. More so Android only because it is established.

      One of Nokia’s weakest links are the UIs. If they could prove to the world that they could skin Android nice, make it polished and make it work well – why not?

      There can be a good reason to use Android and I think that is the only one. Not a permanent choice of course, just a one time “bitch slap” to everyone who says they can’t do UIs.

      Assuming of course, they did it well. 😉

      • The best reason to go with MeeGo for handhelds: it’s a true mobile computer operating system. No compromises as we see in Android and I expect to see in WP7. The trick is to explain to typical users why that’s important. Not impossible.

  6. You wrote, “Unlike many American writers, I’m not ready to write Nokia’s epitaph yet.” But one of the two links you reference ends with this statement: Nokia’s “recovery in the US market might be slow, but it is looking likely”.

    I can only hope that my epitaph ends on such an upbeat note! 😀

    Otherwise, excellent take on Nokia’s current opportunities. I hope Mr. Elop is reading carefully.

    • I’m sure he’s much too busy to bother with my little article. 😉

    • I forgot to address your first statements. I’m really not sure why you raise this? There’s no conflict in the quotes– in fact, they correlate. Sooo…???

      • The link you associated with “Unlike many American writers” ended with “recovery… is looking likely”. The American writer wasn’t writing Nokia’s epitaph, but predicting their recovery – which is a contradiction, not a correlation.

      • I see where the confusion is coming from.

        At first I thought you meant MY previous article– now I see you mean the one by Daniel Christopher Jones. But what I was (obliquely I see) referring to was the quote by a writer that Jones referenced, ie, “In reference to Nokia’s future prospects in the US market, Sterling wrote that you may as well “stick a fork in them”.”

        Sorry for the fuzziness! I should have used Greg Sterling’s original piece. Oops.

  7. As always, good reading. Spot on discussion and thoughts IMO.

  8. This is a superb post Tabula Crypticum .
    But I was wondering how do I suscribe to the RSS feed?

  9. Well said. Recently Nokia has suffered from a glut of middle managers who all have veto powers but no decision making ability.

    BTW all R&D staff at Nokia Irving were laid off On Oct 21. Sad day for a site that was US HQ

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