Ballmer Shakes Up Microsoft Management the Wrong Way

Last Updated Feb 9, 2011 10:33 AM EST

A Microsoft (MSFT) management shake-up will only continue, according to a Bloomberg report. CEO Steve Ballmer plans to replace senior product managers who have sales and marketing backgrounds with engineers.

This is a clear case of major action being five years too late. Then again, that might give Ballmer too much benefit of the doubt. Microsoft is even further behind the curve, because it now seeks what once worked, not what is necessary for success today.

Years ago, Microsoft completely understood that to develop new technical products, you needed technically savvy people in product management. I remember dealing with some who were incredibly sharp. The salespeople were smart, as well. But as far back as the early 1990s, you could watch the slow disintegration of the company's previous culture. Confidence based on people knowing what they were talking about turned into arrogance over being employed by the world's largest software company.

Ballmer wants to regain Microsoft's glory days, and he's been axing top executives in his drive to assert control and, let's be frank, blame someone else for the mess the company is in.

However, given the depth and breadth of Microsoft's problems, Ballmer can't look at anyone else but himself. He is the common factor. If the company has sacrificed promising new product lines to genuflect at the altars of Windows and Office, who else had the authority to set things right?

Now Ballmer finally grasps how tight a squeeze his company is in. So he turns back to what once seemed to work, having engineers in management positions. Unfortunately, this is another mistake. Yes, technical knowledge is important, but not enough, especially when the culture and overall strategy of the organization are in question.

As Apple (AAPL) has demonstrated, design aesthetics and understanding the customer are equally important. Look at Jonathan Ive, who was responsible for the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. His background is in industrial design. CEO Steve Jobs has talked in the past about having developers who were also musicians, artists, designers -- who had crossed intellectual boundaries, which is the prerequisite for creativity and innovation.

Not that Microsoft is entirely oblivious. Xbox 360 Kinect was a real breakthrough. Windows Phone 7 was a necessary jettisoning of old concepts. And yet, Ballmer seems headed to a false geek-or-marketeer dichotomy tied to product marketing. When the old answers don't work, you need new thoughts and associations. Instead, Ballmer heads back to what is tired and true.

Related: Image: Flickr user misocrazy, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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